The oldest Louisiana probation officer to ever serve is retiring Dec. 2, and she is from Franklin Parish.
After 39 years, 86-year-old Zaidee Ruth Stephens will hang her duties up as a juvenile probation officer for grandmother duties, traveling and a well-deserved rest.
“Ms. Ruth” as she is affectionately known by her co-workers is respected in Louisiana’s court system for her knowledge and experience, said William “Bill” Sommers, deputy secretary of the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ).
“When we lose a person like Ms. Ruth, we lose a lot of experience,” Sommers said. “We lose a lot of old school experience. It has been a pleasure to work with her, and she will truly be missed. She is one of a kind.”
Her family, on the other hand, is looking forward to having more time with Stephens, and they credit their success to her direction.
“I’m where I am now because of mom,” said Louisiana’s Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jimbo Stephens. “I am the person I am today because of her encouragement and guidance.”
Many aspects in the family structure have changed since 1982 when Stephens started her career as a juvenile probation officer. Topping the list is a “breakdown of the family,” Stephens said.
“There is no parental guidance what so ever,” Stephens said. “If we had some good parents there may not be any drugs. It has just made my job so hard.”
Statistics proved Stephens analysis correct about the home’s breakdown.
Studies by Heritage Foundation researchers indicated a 10 percent increase in the percentage of children living in single-parent homes led typically to a 17 percent increase in juvenile crime.
The home’s breakdown can be seen in the legal system throughout the country with juveniles not respecting law officers, probation officers or judges.
“They don’t seem to be afraid anymore,” Stephens said. “There is no respect for the court system or even the judge.”
Stephens acknowledged some youth have become so disrespectful to those in authority that a juvenile probation officer’s job can be dangerous.
Stephens and Sommers both agree while working for OJJ there has been ups and plenty of downs.
“I’ve had some disappointments,” Stephens said. “But, I believe I have made a difference also. I have people come up to me and tell me I have.”
Sommers agreed with his juvenile probation officer.
“There is a lot of heartache in OJJ,” Sommers acknowledges. “You just want it so bad for the juvenile, but sometimes the deck is stacked against them. I tell my probation officers to measure success with a thimble and to celebrate each success. This is a calling.”
Throughout the years, Stephens celebrated each success and hurt with each failure, but through it all made lasting relationships with the people she came in contact with.
“I really care about our kids,” Stephens said, laughing. “Some still call me mom.”
Before she was called “Mom” or “Ms. Ruth,” Stephens was a student working on her master’s at University of Louisiana Monroe when the OJJ job became available.
“I had been involved with children in the foreign exchange program,” Stephens remembered. “I thought I would be able to relate to them, but I did not fully understand. I was shocked when I started (in OJJ). I had been raised in a sheltered environment.”
Working with an experienced crew helped Stephens through the first years of her career.
“We have seasoned officers,” Stephens said.
She worked in an office of approximately 20 officers who many times paid out of pocket for expenses due to budget cuts.
Sommer acknowledged being a juvenile probation officer was often hard work, but people like Stephens made a difference in the lives of young people.
“She has weathered so many storms in her years of service,” Sommers said.
According to Stephens, she suffered through storms, but her 39 years of service just “rolled by.” She was busy trying to make a difference.
“I am a healthy 86,” Stephens said. “I don’t have any aches and pains. In my mind and heart I feel young. Age is just a number.”