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Fixing the System

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Photograph by Jared CastaldiThe clock glowed 3:10 a.m. when the alarm woke Linda Ammons. She was sleep deprived, but she could focus during the quiet hours between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. So every morning for four months, she would crawl out of bed before the sun rose, before she had to tend to her usual daily responsibilities.

As dean of Widener University School of Law, Ammons couldn’t afford to shut the world out for long, but she had to carve out some time to focus on her newest task: a review of systemic breakdowns in the Earl Bradley case—the worst case of alleged pediatrician abuse in modern American history.

Exhausted, Ammons yawned as she turned on her computer. She didn’t drink coffee, but at moments like this she had considered starting. She rolled her neck from side to side, trying to shake off the sleep, when she noticed her handbag on the bureau. She walked over, unzipped the inside pocket, then pulled out a tattered business card.

As she ran her fingers over the raised print, she thought about the man who had given it to her. She had met him only once, the day Governor Jack Markell announced that Ammons would conduct an independent review of the Bradley case. After Ammons had answered questions from the press, the man approached. He shared with her details of a trauma that no person—especially an innocent child—should ever have to experience. He gathered the courage to speak to her because he hoped she could make changes that would protect children.

Ammons promised to keep his card close. She told him that when she got tired or discouraged, it would give her incentive to keep moving on. “You can’t do something like this and not be changed,” Ammons says. “When I was at my weariest, I would think about that man.”

Ammons did make those changes. In May she completed her report on the investigation. It made 68 recommendations for preventing systemic failures when reporting child abuse and exploitation. Some have already become law.

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“The report provided critical and appropriate recommendations in reforming the system to better protect the children of Delaware,” says Rita Landgraf, secretary for the Department of Health and Social Services. “Ammons’ legal perspective, as well as being independent from the system, allowed for an unbiased approach which proved to enhance protocols throughout the justice, medical and the state’s administrative systems.”

And now, the first African-American woman to lead Widener’s law school has become the first black woman nominated to be a federal judge in Delaware.

“I now see and understand why I went through certain careers and experiences,” she says.

Linda Ammons’ interest in law started as a child, largely because of her mother. “She should have been the lawyer,” Ammons says. “She would sit us kids around the table and throw out a discussion so we could debate it. There was a lot of critical grooming going on at that point in time, and my mother was always interested in the fairness, justice and legal side of things.”

Those discussions sparked an interest in most of the Ammons children. Among her four brothers are another attorney, a paralegal and a parole officer.

Yet Ammons didn’t pursue law immediately. She instead nurtured her love of reading and writing, which earned her a bachelor’s degree in English from Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1974. During her junior year, Ammons began working for WAAY-TV as a desk assistant. Six months later she was promoted to field reporter. She stayed at the station after graduation and worked as an anchorperson and talk show host for the Alabama Public Television Network.

Ammons received a master’s in communications from The Ohio State University in 1980, intending to pursue the legal side of communications. But by the mid ’80s, after working as a publication specialist, continuity programmer and director of public affairs, she started itching for a change. Over her career she had interviewed several lawyers about high-profile trials, and she’d interviewed many political figures. “One day, a friend of mine at work said, ‘You ought to go to law school,’ and I thought maybe I should, so I did,” she says.

Ammons graduated from The Ohio State University College of Law in 1987, joined the Ohio bar, then served as executive assistant to Governor Richard F. Celeste. She worked in administration and regulatory and criminal law, and she dealt with organizations and agencies such as the National Guard, the Department of Insurance, the highway patrol, and building and permits.

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Ammons also worked at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law as a professor for 15 years, then an associate dean for three before taking over at Widener in 2006, when she moved to Delaware.

Ammons may be best-known in Ohio for crafting a law that made it easier to get certain evidence introduced in cases involving battered women and for leading a project that resulted in clemencies for 28 Ohio women. For two years she chaired the American Bar Association National Institute on Defending Battered Women in Criminal Cases.

Reforming legislation to aid the abused is a recurring theme in her career. “You never know what’s going to come your way,” Ammons says. “These types of issues found me as opposed to me finding them.”

And so it was when she was asked to review state laws and procedures in the wake of Bradley.

In January 2010 Ammons was preparing to speak—about the importance of law schools promoting pro-bono activities—at the annual American Association of Law Schools meeting in New Orleans when her cell phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number, so she sent the caller to voice mail. She listened later in her hotel room, “He said, ‘Jack Markell’ not governor, and then left three numbers to reach him at. I thought, Oh no, this cannot be good,” she recalls.

Markell had called to ask if she would lead a probe into the failings of the child protection system and relevant state law. “I rarely immediately decide to do anything, so I told the governor I would think about it,” Ammons says. “However, it is difficult to tell the governor no…”

Ammons was the governor’s first choice to lead the investigation, Markell says. “Her experience with Governor Celeste meant she had a familiarity with state governments, but would also be able to bring a fresh perspective to an examination of Delaware’s processes. She brought a solid reputation for independence and inquiry and has had real success as a lawyer, professor and administrator.”

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The investigation was a chance for Ammons to revisit her interest in criminal and administrative law. “It provided me with an opportunity to use some skills that I hadn’t used in a long time,” she says. She drew on her experience as a student to think critically about facts. She reached back to her experience as a reporter to question carefully and listen thoughtfully. She drew on her experience in government to navigate state agencies and deal with crime victims. Ammons consulted with people as far as California, spoke to state administrators, legislators, and hundreds of victims and their family members.

“The end result is something of great importance,” she says. “It will save the literal and emotional life of a child. The previous system in place was set up for failure. It wasn’t that people were being purposeful in ignoring things, but they just weren’t careful enough, and the system wasn’t designed to catch certain things.”

Many of Ammons’ recommendations have already become law. Vivian Rapposelli, secretary of the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families, notes the impact of Ammons’ review.

“We’ve seen some increase in reporting to our child abuse report line, and the coordination between state agencies has significantly improved,” Rapposelli says. “Under the governor’s direction and the guidance of Dean Ammons’ report, an interagency steering committee continues to work to ensure that, beyond the actions taken during the previous legislative session, state agencies are continuing to examine policies and processes to make sure that every aspect of her recommendations are considered and, where appropriate, acted upon.”

Though the subject matter and context were difficult, Ammons views the experience as positive.

“I understand the perspective of wanting someone who could be neutral about all of the issues and players,” she says. “I have had empathy for these victims, but I was asked to be objective, so I couldn’t allow myself to be overwhelmed with the sadness.”

That’s prudent policy for someone who may soon become a judge. Ammons was nominated to the federal bench in August. She’s reluctant to speak about it until she’s confirmed.

“Linda Ammons’ work on the report made a real difference, but she should not be defined solely by those months of service,” Markell says. “She’s helping shape Delaware and the region’s legal future each day with her strong leadership at Widener Law.”

But she admits she never envisioned her life taking such a path.

“Never say never,” she says. “I work on one task at a time, one day at a time. I do things because I enjoy them. At this stage of my life, if I don’t enjoy it, I don’t do it.”

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