Reporting for jury duty, giving to help children

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In less than a minute on a recent Tuesday morning, Richard Scordo talked 48 people he'd never seen before out of $825.

He asked a captive crowd of those reporting for jury duty to donate their $15 juror expense money to Anne Arundel County's foster children for extras the government doesn't pay for - such as bicycles, tutoring and after-school activities.

"It is for items that we take for granted that they don't currently get," Scordo told the jurors in his pitch as part of the three-year-old Generous Juror Program, one of a growing number of such programs in circuit court systems around the state.

More than half of the 81 jurors that day lined up to make tax-deductible contributions. Among them was cab driver Sarbjit Dhillon, 45, of Hanover, who said jury duty was costing him lost earnings plus the $32 he has to pay each day for his taxi. But, he said, other people are less fortunate.

"I don't have any children," he said. "I want to support the children."

Broadneck High School English teacher Aubrey Baden III, 36, donated his three $5 bills.

"I've been very fortunate to have a supportive family, emotionally and financially," Baden said. "This is an opportunity to give something."

Juror Pauline Molder, 56, of Severna Park, a stay-at-home grandmother and recently minted foster mother, pulled additional cash from her wallet as well. "I'm ashamed to admit it, I didn't even know it existed," she said of the program.

Juror fee donation programs have existed for a generation around the country, said G. Thomas Munsterman, director of the Center for Jury Studies of the National Center for State Courts. Early programs began in Cincinnati and Dallas. Nevada is the only state to have it in state law, he said.

In Maryland, programs nearly identical to Anne Arundel's operate in Baltimore, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. They pull in thousands of dollars a year - together more than $100,000 this year - most of it for foster children.

The beginning

Lois E. Rowe, Anne Arundel County jury commissioner, said the county Department of Social Services approached the courts to begin the program in 2001.

It pays for a variety of things from clothing and orthodontics to dance lessons and day camp. Such expenses are outside the bounds of government or beyond the means of foster parents who receive a few hundred dollars a month to care for a foster child.

"Kids have needs that there is no allotted budget for," said Chris Poulson, special projects manager for the county Department of Social Services. "Counseling, bikes - they are the odds and ends which we as parents know are important."

Scordo, 38, of Annapolis, is a former corporate sales manager who retired about four years ago when sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease, damaged his vision. He turned to volunteering.

Scordo's personal goal is for donations from the roughly 10,000 jurors called each year to reach $3,000 a month. Little by little, the take is increasing.

In the first year, Anne Arundel jurors gave $14,000. Last year, it was $22,000, and in the first 11 months of this year, $21,000. The $825 on one day set a daily record.

Anne Arundel imported the idea from Howard County, the first in Maryland to have the program. There, the idea of giving the money to help children in foster care emanated from then-County Councilman C. Vernon Gray in 1996. He heard about it from an official in Dallas.

Howard County jurors receive $10 for the morning and another $10 if they are kept for the afternoon. But in 1996, the Howard County jury commissioner's office found that it had $5,000 more in its coffers than it had expected because, as elsewhere, some jurors returned their expense dollars.

Giving back

"We would pay in cash," said Jury Commissioner Steve Merson. "These jurors would come over and say, 'We don't want this.'"

In 1997, the first full year of the program, about $10,000 was returned. As of the end of November, the program had brought in nearly $12,000.

Merson's quick pitch - "My spiel is you are not going to get rich off jury duty" - is followed by a few words on who benefits.

Starting last fall, his office began splitting the donations between foster care children and Healthy Families Howard County. Based at Howard County General Hospital, the parent-child program is using the infusion to turn once-annual events into at least monthly offerings, including transportation, for new parents who need additional support.

Baltimore County's program began in 2000, benefiting foster children. Each year, the fund has topped $15,000, said Jury Commissioner Nancy Tilton.

A short public service announcement explains the program. "Usually when that goes off, we have a line of jurors waiting to donate their money," Tilton said. "We've even had jurors give us checks for $50, even $100."

Harford County

Harford County also learned of the donation program from Howard County. Harford started its program in April 1999. That year, jurors returned about $16,000.

More recently, jurors return about $40,000 a year in $20 daily expense vouchers, all of which goes toward providing foster children with services and goods that the government does not fund, said Harford County Jury Commissioner Paulyne M. Finck.

"Most of them just come up and if they say anything, they say, 'Well, they can use it more than I can,'" Finck said.

Prince George's County's program, begun in June 2001, routinely pulls in at least $5,000 to $6,000 a month. The county Department of Social Services has used it for such things as computer centers in homeless shelters and transportation in connection with a foster child's surgery, said Sondra Battle, deputy Circuit Court administrator.

Newest program

Montgomery County's juror donation program is the newest, started in April to help children who have been removed from their homes. Jury Commissioner Nancy L. Galvin said the $15 fee declined by jurors has brought in as much as $7,000 a month.

Among those helped have been teenagers living in group homes.

"It has brought us an opportunity to bring opportunities to kids," said Pamela Littlewood, liaison to juvenile court from Child Welfare Services.

Her office has bought everything from clarinets and computers to prom dresses and uniforms for teenagers starting jobs. This fall, the money bought 470 children backpacks to start school, she said.

"These kids are going to be our jurors one day," said Galvin. "We want to educate them."

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