By DUSTY RHODES
When Katrina Roberts calls herself "just a mom," it's about like Spiderman calling himself "just an arachnid." Roberts, a former hairdresser, and her husband Guy, a truck driver, have seven children – four of whom were adopted through the foster care system, some of whom have physical, emotional or developmental problems, none of which scared Roberts.
"I just knew I could love it all away," she said.
For her kids with special needs, Roberts became ferocious about advocating for their best interests with the Mahomet school district. "I live up to my name," she said. "I'm a hurricane." So imagine what happened when she discovered that one of her older children had endangered a sibling.
Ultimately, she and Guy made the heartbreaking decision to relinquish guardianship (though not parental rights) of the older child back to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, in hopes of forcing the agency to provide more services. This meant court hearings, and since the Robertses couldn't afford an attorney, the family court judge appointed them each a public defender. Katrina didn't know what to expect. "I thought, 'Was this going to be someone new, fresh out of law school, who didn't know anything?'"
Instead, she got Pam Burnside, a lawyer who has spent her entire legal career – all 15 years – with the Champaign County Public Defender's office. It took a couple of meetings for Katrina, shell-shocked and distraught from the family trauma, to realize that this middle-aged woman with a wardrobe of sweat pants and sneakers matched her commitment to the case.
"She's not about appearance; she's about the work," Roberts said. "She just appears to be a very passionate person for justice. I don't get the impression that she's like this just with me, or that she's in the public defender's office because she couldn't cut it anywhere else. She's doing exactly what she wants to do."
Burnside, 54, seems to view her profession less as a means to make money and more as a way to make a positive impact. She has taken on every specialty in the public defender's office – traffic, misdemeanor, felony and juvenile delinquency – and now handles the long, complicated and heart-rending cases that make up the abuse and neglect docket. The office represents not only people facing jail time who can't afford an attorney, but also parents faced with the possibility of losing custody of their children to the state, which is how Katrina and her husband qualified.
Burnside has worked in the office even longer than Randall Rosenbaum, the chief public defender for Champaign County.
"For anybody to stay in our office for any length of time, you have to be committed to the kind of work we do," Rosenbaum said. "We deal with a lot of people who are angry at the police, angry at the system, people who have mental health problems, substance abuse problems. So working with these people on an everyday basis is not for everybody."
Burnside, however, continues her work even outside the office. She has been an officer in the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, including serving as president in 2003 and 2004. She has been a member of the Champaign Community and Police Partnership (formerly the Community/Police Relations committee) since 2003. During the summer, she even took in a homeless family – a young mother and six kids under the age of 8.
Vernessa Gipson, director of school and community partnerships at the Regional Office of Education, has been impressed by Burnside since meeting her years ago, when Burnside was assigned to the public defender's juvenile delinquency caseload and represented some of Gipson's clients.
"It was easy to recognize that she really cared about her clients. Getting a plea was not her first priority; proving their innocence was," Gipson said. "Juvenile and DCFS cases appeared to be as important as her criminal defense cases."
Burnside said she wanted to work for the public defender's office so she could provide legal help to whoever needed it regardless of their ability to pay. "I'm not cut out for private practice," she said. "I could never make people pay. I am just not wired that way."
For video of Pam Burnside, click here.
More in Sunday's News-Gazette.
This report is part of a joint project of The News-Gazette and the University of Illinois Department of Journalism, in an ongoing examination of poverty and its related issues in Champaign County.
The project is funded by the Marajen Stevick Foundation, a News-Gazette foundation; a matching grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a journalism foundation based in Miami; and contributions from the UI.
The project also has a Web site for this and other material, including user-generated content.