Daughter. Sister. College graduate. Wife. Mother. Aunt. Attorney. And now, “Judge.” Each role defines what is important in her life.
Renee Rodriguez-Betancourt graduated from Edinburg High School in 1999. Two-and-a-half years later, she graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American (now UTRGV) with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a minor in both history and English. Then it was off to law school at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law where she earned her law degree in 2005.
While in law school, Rodriguez-Betancourt entertained the idea of one day becoming a judge. “At first, I thought about it because of the prestige associated with being a judge,” she told me. But that would have to come later.
During her first four years as an attorney, Rodriguez-Betancourt took on a variety of cases, but from 2010 to 2016, she represented school districts across Hidalgo County.
Last year, Rodriguez-Betancourt heard there would be a vacant seat in the 449th District Court, a court officially established in 2008 that specializes in processing juvenile cases. Although years before she had entertained the idea of one day becoming a judge for the prestige it carried, that perspective had completely changed.
“I got away from ego and materialism,” Rodriguez-Betancourt said. “I realized I needed to help others, and when the opportunity opened for the 449th District Court, I think it was God telling me, ‘You want to help? Well, this is your opportunity.’”
Rodriguez-Betancourt jumped in the race and won. Sworn in January 1, 2017, she officially took a seat on the bench January 3. When she jumped in, she did so with both feet.
Two weeks ago today, I had the opportunity to spend the morning with Rodriguez-Betancourt. She started the morning in her chambers, meeting with the assistant DA, the public defender who would represent the juveniles going before her that day, and staff from the probation office. Rodriguez-Betancourt then met with another probation officer regarding a juvenile in the system. After this meeting, she asked me to go to the courtroom while she went into the detention facility at the Judge Mario E. Ramirez, Jr. Juvenile Justice Center, where the 449th District Court is located, to hold a hearing for a teen who had been detained. Due to injuries she suffered in an attack, the teen was unable to walk.
“All rise” signaled that Rodriguez-Betancourt was entering the courtroom. Immediately thereafter, the detention hearings for the day began. One-by-one, juveniles were brought into the courtroom in handcuffs attached to a chain around their waist and with chains around their ankles. As each one walked in, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened in their lives that caused them to be standing, in chains, before the judge.
That morning, Rodriguez-Betancourt heard more than 10 cases. Among them:
*Male. Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Detained until formal hearing April 24.
*16-year-old male. Burglary of vehicle. Tested positive for “bars” (Xanax) and marijuana. Pattern of drug use. Transfer to Mesquite Treatment Center in Lyford for 30 days.
*14-year-old male. Criminal mischief and assault. Tested positive for marijuana and “bars.” Sent to treatment center. Rodriguez-Betancourt gave the teen this strong message before she excused him from her courtroom: “If you run away or quit treatment, it is not going to go well for you in this court. I’m trying to get you treatment because you have a drug problem…For your mom, for yourself, for your family, go get that help.”
*16-year-old male. Directive to apprehend due to noncompliance. Released from Hector Garza Center (a Joint Commission, accredited residential treatment center in San Antonio for teens 10-17 years old) in November. Tested positive for marijuana, cocaine, “bars,” and Ecstasy (also known as “Molly”--methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA), a synthetic drug that alters mood and perception.) Rodriguez-Betancourt ordered a psychiatric evaluation for medical management and OSAR, which I learned that day is under Texas Health and Human Services. OSAR stands for Outreach, Screening, Assessment, and Referral Centers (OSARs) and is considered a first point of contact when substance abuse treatment is needed.
One of the cases that stood out for me that morning involved a 15-year-old female arrested for resisting arrest. She had a history of aggressive behavior and had tested positive for marijuana and “bars.” The court noted there was also a history of a lack of supervision in the home. When arrested, the teen had visible marks on her neck. Rodriguez-Betancourt asked how she got them. “My brother choked me,” she responded. She said her brother thought she had stolen something from the store, so he choked her. Rodriguez-Betancourt asked the teen’s mother about the marks, and she defended her son. This did not sit well with the judge. Rodriguez-Betancourt told the mother that she was raised in a home with two brothers who watched over her and expected her to behave. However, she said, her brothers never choked her or physically harmed her. “There is no excuse for that!” she told the girl’s mother. Rodriguez-Betancourt then turned toward the teen, telling her about two recent cases that came before her involving young females taking the wrong path. One was found dead and the other (the one who had a hearing in the detention facility that morning) nearly died. Tears streaming down her face, the teen told Rodriguez-Betancourt the one found dead was her friend. The judge asked her if that was what she wanted to happen to her. “YOU have a drug problem!” she told the teen. The judge ordered the probation officer to contact World of Children, a psychological evaluation, an OSAR screening, and a home evaluation. “And call CPS!” she added.
I felt exhausted by 11:30, but not physically. Mentally. I asked Rodriguez-Betancourt about her greatest challenge.
“Trying not to get jaded,” she responded, “not to lose the sense of hope when I’ve given kids a chance.”
And her greatest reward?
“One of my first days, a child who came before me told me, ‘I sell drugs. I make a lot of money.’ He was really smart. He didn’t use the drugs; he sold them. He was a businessman.” Rodriguez-Betancourt sent him to the Gulf Coast Trades Center in New Waverly, Texas. (Learn more about this facility on the web at gctc.us) “Well guess what?” Rodriguez-Betancourt continued. “He has requested permission to stay until he is 18. He is getting his diploma and has learned the automotive trade. They are going to help him get a job. And he told his probation officer, ‘I’m going to do this because The Judge said I can do it.’”
Other teens have thanked Rodriguez-Betancourt and written her letters, too. This, without a doubt, is the greatest reward.
In her chambers, Rodriguez-Betancourt has created a small altar. Every day, she prays for all of the teens who come before her. “I’m very strong in my faith,” she told me. “That’s what keeps me going.”
Rodriguez-Betancourt can easily pinpoint overriding themes in the teens who come before her: mental health issues, drug problems, and parental neglect. “Eighty percent of the cases I hear involve drugs,” she said. “And many times, they are getting them at school.” Rodriguez-Betancourt has plans for working with schools in Hidalgo County, forming partnerships she feels certain can prevent teens from coming before her. She has other plans, too, but we will have to wait to see them as they unfold.
Her message for teens? “In this world, perfection is expected. Honestly, all of that doesn’t matter. It’s about being a good person, being respectful, and being honest. It’s about the virtues of life. Stand up when something isn’t right. Be humble and just.”
And for parents? “Don’t expect perfection. Support your children but give them independence. Find a balance. Don’t be the helicopter parent, but don’t ignore and neglect them. What they see at home is what they’re going to mimic.”
The final case I sat in involved a teen who completed treatment at Mesquite the previous week. He will continue with outpatient therapy for 2-3 months and will be tested for drugs in 30 days. Rodriguez-Betancourt looked at the teen and leaned forward, as if to make the conversation just between the two of them, and said, “There are a lot of great possibilities you can have, but there are also some bad possibilities….I’m very proud of you!”
The teen’s smile was the greatest possible response.