Shamus O'Meara's Introduction of Federal District Court Judge Donovan W. Frank
United States Federal District Court Judge Donavan W. Frank serves on the bench in St. Paul. But he does so with years of experience practicing law in northern Minnesota, and as a judge in the state courts. Moreover, he brought with him life experience which helped give added insights and motivation in recognizing the needs of people with developmental disabilities. Judge Frank has demonstrated keen understanding of the issues impacting people with developmental disabilities, and has worked within the federal court system itself, to enlarge employment opportunities. His remarkable record is admired by people with developmental disabilities, their family members, and the general public. I’m honored that Judge Frank has agreed to share his thoughts and personal life experiences with us here today.
Judge Frank’s Introduction to Developmental Disabilities
From the time I was a little boy and really old enough to understand, at least so I thought, my Dad insisted on taking one of his older cousins, Dutch, who was developmentally disabled, to church with us on Sundays. He also insisted that Dutch should help us around my Dad’s little TV and appliance store in southeastern Minnesota. Dutch lived on a farm outside of my hometown.
It was my parents, as I look back on it, who taught me not to perpetuate so many stereotypes of individuals with special needs or disabilities. However at the same time, it was important that we give them opportunities, and that’s as my parents taught me, to realize their full potential and to live productive lives. I grew up watching my mother and father truly caring for people like Dutch in our community, with many acts of kindness and opportunities.
Equal Justice Under the Law, Abuse and Action
One day my phone rang and it was a social worker I knew on the Iron Range. And she said to me, “We have a group of adult women and men with developmental disabilities living in the Virginia, Minnesota area and they would like very much to spend some time in your courtroom.” And of course, I said, “Come on over.” And actually, and sometimes when I... if you were in my chambers with me today, I would have a picture that I proudly have in my chambers of a great group picture with all those special citizens, men and women with disabilities, that spent the day with me.
And, once I discussed “equal justice under the law” for a time, with the help of the social worker that had come with this group of men and women. The social worker approached me with three of the women, and they went to privately tell me they were being sexually harassed, sexually abused in the supervised living situation they were in, and sadly, in the case of one of the women, that she had been raped.
They went on to explain to me that they were not getting any protection from law enforcement. And I could really tell, by talking to them, observing them, that they had not been treated with the appropriate sensitivity, respect and dignity of which all citizens are deserving, especially victims of crimes.
Suffice it to say, today, that I was able at that time to intervene in an appropriate way, from at least where I saw the issue, and I believe that we did a couple of things. We ended the harassment. One of the abusers was confronted. We stopped the indignities that, from my part at least, three of the women were being subjected to. And we were able to deal with the person who had raped the woman that I talked to.
Workplace Diversity and Challenging Employers
I have observed firsthand that even a temporary loss of employment creates severe hardships, because many individuals with developmental disabilities not only completely rely on the income from these jobs, but more importantly to me, the dignity that is associated with being productive and needed members of society brings a quality of life to each of them, just like it does to each of us.
So we are working in a job that we like, we appreciate the job, we are appreciated, and we care about the job. Because we are a more diverse workforce, and we are as diverse, I think, as any organization can be when you have a large number of people, and should have a large number of people, from different backgrounds, including employees with disabilities.
Who can argue with me when I say that we are a better and stronger workforce that truly represents the community within which we live and work? And so when I am out and about, to put it one way, whether in my personal life or professional life, and I observe that individuals with developmental disabilities and other people with severe disabilities of all kinds are employed, be it part-time, full-time, I do my very best to seek out a manager, a department head and thank them for employing these individuals, and I promise them that I will not only be back to do business with them because I believe it a measure of being a good employer, a good neighbor, and a good business when they have a diverse workforce. I also tell them I’ll spread the word, that this is a good employer.
From the other side of the aisle, so to speak though, we should be seeking out those employers, those private and public institutions, be they large or small, when we see that they do not have a diverse workforce. And, I would suggest that we should challenge not only them but any private or public contract that is put together that does not have diversity in it and challenge, as I’ve used the phrase today, traditional notions of diversity. And let’s face it, you all know who these employers are and you know who hires individuals with disabilities and you know who does not.
DD Workers Not to Blame, But Training, Supervision
I identified the problem and it was my opinion that it was lack of supervision and training, not lack of the ability to do the job, because if the training was proper, the job was done very appropriately in a highly competent way. In my own observation though, being an expert, I had observed that once you trained and established a routine, at least in our building, and stayed with it, and were supervised appropriately, we had high quality work done.
So, I went to this upper level management and said, “You’ve got the wrong people at fault for this, you’ve transferred my favorite person and you’re blaming the people with disabilities for their shortcomings when it’s your blame to take, not theirs.” It’s training, it’s education. It is not the people doing the work because when they’re trained they do it appropriately.
People with DD Want Same Treatment, Respect
The individuals with disabilities take care of our courthouse and they take care of our chambers and what I have learned from them is they react the same way as individuals who come into my courtroom each day. They expect fair and equal access and dignified treatment. And they know when they don’t get it. That is to say, they know when they’re treated with respect, with patience, with kindness. And the fact that they are individuals with disabilities, they know as well as anyone when somebody truly cares, when someone is patient, and when someone listens to them.
And, that’s taught me to be a better judge as it turns out. Because, when you think about it, that’s the same thing that litigants expect when they come to court. And I might add to that, that many recent court studies show that the ultimate decision in the courtroom, and many employment studies show the ultimate decision in the workplace, is not nearly as important as the perception of the people affected by the decision, that is to say, how they are treated. Were they listened to? Were they treated with dignity and respect and patience?
And I, for one, absolutely believe that regardless of the education level of an individual, the degree, the degree of their disability, or their background, people know in their heart and intellectually when the people they are working with or appearing in front of, if you want to use my example as a judge, they know when we care. They know when we listen. Acts of patience and kindness do not go unnoticed by anyone.
Diverse Workplace in True Sense of the Word
One day a federal employee came into my chambers, sat down in front of my desk, and the following conversation occurred. The employee said to me, “You know, Judge Frank, why do you care so much about these people? You should know that when you move to the new building, you are going to have real cleaners.” And, that’s the word that was used.
My response was, “Excuse me. This has never been just about the work these individuals do. I guess my mother and my father raised me wrong, because I thought what this was about, and what our responsibility was as a society, was to work and lend a helping hand and a caring hand to those around us.” And I still feel that way, and I think there was something lost on this, employee that day. I talked to. By the way that was the end of the conversation, because I didn’t think we had any more to discuss after we had that exchange.
An issue left for another day I might suggest to you is a willingness of businesses and unions to include in their collective bargaining agreements provisions for the hiring and retention of individuals with developmental disabilities. Now, why would I say something like that? I say that because that is an explanation or an excuse that was attempted to be used in the federal court as an impediment to bringing the 22 individuals with the federal court to the interim building.
They teach me every day—more than I teach them—and I am proud that at the federal court that we are a diverse workforce in the true sense of the word. It brings true meaning to the words “equal justice under the law.” We do try to practice what we preach.