When times are tough on the bench, Judge Verda Colvin thinks of Crystal Butts.
Thursday morning in Bibb County Superior Court, Butts came before the judge to pick up her certificate from the new Parenting Treatment Court Program.
Butts is one of three mothers who completed nearly two years of learning proper discipline and parenting techniques after being arrested for hurting their children.
"You've made the biggest transformation I've seen since I've been on the bench," Colvin told Butts, who was wearing a fancy dress with a gold skirt and red high heels.
It wasn't Butts' outfit or perfectly coiffed hair but her mental makeover that inspires Colvin.
When she first appeared before the judge, Butts was angry and confrontational. She was clearly only attending the parenting classes because she had to, Colvin said, but then something changed.
"She just kind of got it," Colvin told the graduation attendees in the courtroom. "There was a transformation. She became respectful. ... I'm so incredibly impressed and proud. And when you made that transformation, what you did kept me going in other accountability courts I preside over."
Initially, Colvin was reluctant to sign on when Assistant Chief Public Defender Mark Beberman approached her about creating a new way to handle parents charged with cruelty to children in the second degree or lesser charges. Most lost custody due to the incident.
"Our goal is to break the cycle of abuse and neglect," Beberman said at the ceremony.
In his 30 years as an attorney, Beberman noticed parental abusers often were mimicking the way they were disciplined as a child.
"No one has stopped to intervene and stop this cycle," Beberman said.
When he was charged with defending several moms who had lost their kids.
They "desperately wanted to get them back but they were overwhelmed by the process," he said.
Working now with a dozen parents, mostly women, he sees common factors — single parents, who are also full-time employees, raising multiple children and some with special needs.
The stress of trying to manage their households can lead to improper discipline.
"We can't guarantee they'll get their kids back, but I can feel sure that they are going to have more kids someday," Beberman said.
Thursday's graduates have been reunited with their children, including Shenetrics Glynn and Candace Thomas, who asked Colvin to continue to mentor her.
"I am with you all the way," the judge told her, pledging to be there for birthdays and milestones.
"I was afraid you were going to say, 'No,' " Thomas tearfully told the woman in the black robe.
The women studied under professor Myra Davis, who reminded them Thursday about using "time out" and "quiet time" to discipline their children.
"Don't put your hands on your children," was a mantra Butts picked up and the others embraced.
"You're already upset," Davis said. "Don't punish when you're angry. Sometimes you have to step back and count to 10 or count to 20 or count to 30."
Davis encouraged them to praise the kids for good behavior each day, maintain a safe space and interesting learning environment, seek help with special needs children and take time for themselves.
Susan Joanis, who volunteers with the Parenting Court after retiring with 43 years at the state Division of Family and Children Services, said many parents don't know where to turn.
"A lot of them have medically fragile children," Joanis said. "They don't know how to maneuver through the system to get the help they need."
Organizers hope Georgia will recognize the value of the Parenting Court and bring it under the umbrella of other accountability courts, like drug court, which receives state funding.
Colvin credited District Attorney David Cooke and the Public Defender's Office for funding the start of the program that continues to take new defendants.
Monday, Takeshia Chambliss, who duct taped her 2-year-old's mouth and hands in what she said was "joke" to get child support money out of the boy's father last year, was sentenced to five years on probation and ordered to pay $500 and attend Parental Accountability Court.
"Parenting is the hardest job in the world, any parent gets that, but what you get in return is the meaning and power of unconditional love," Colvin said.
As the ceremony was getting underway, Thomas' oldest child, who has special needs, was clapping away near the front row. His little sister gave him a mature scolding despite her young years.
Their mom whispered for them to be quiet from her seat in the jury box.
Davis praised her for her poise and ability to adjust her schedule to make the children a priority.
About an hour later, Thomas and her children and their family walked out onto the courthouse square.
Thomas traded her white pumps for flip flops at the sidewalk, and struggled to get the kids in the car.
"I'm looking forward to us having lunch," Colvin had told her in the courtroom.
The family was leaving with the knowledge that Thomas has a new ally in her quest to be a better mother.
In her video testimony that aired during graduation, she professed the two years "helped me tremendously."
"I have new disciplinary strategies to be an effective parent."