SANTA FE — Parents here know that if their children won’t go to school or otherwise misbehave, they can call Judge Mike W. Nelson. He makes house calls.
Nelson will grab a wooden paddle that he proudly refers to as “the board of education” and drive to the home of a disobedient child.
“This paddle will travel,” said Nelson, a retired Marine with a slow drawl and a habit of wearing cowboy boots, bright Western shirts and jeans under his judicial robe.
See Jordan Riak's letter
to Galvestone County Daily News,
March 30, 2003
While Nelson, 53, has swung the paddle himself a few times, the Precinct 4 justice of peace prefers that parents to do the whipping. He’d rather supervise at their homes or in his courtroom, where at least 200 unruly juveniles have felt his brand of justice through the years.
In a town of 10,000 with a reputation for embracing old-fashioned values, Nelson’s assertion that sparing the rod spoils the child makes him a revered man and one who handily has kept his elected seat for 17 years.
Along Came Robbins
That’s just the way it has been. No one seemed to have anything bad to say, at least publicly, about Nelson’s stance on corporal punishment. And it’s unlikely that many outside his jurisdiction knew about the practice — until last year when Ronnie Eugene Robbins took Nelson’s parenting advice a step too far.
Last week, Robbins, 33, was indicted on charges of injury to a child and child endangerment. He was arrested Oct. 31 at a gas station for shackling his 12-year-old daughter, Heaven, with chains and padlocks to stop her from skipping school and running away from home.
The Santa Fe resident was arrested after a woman called police to report seeing a girl whose ankles were chained together at the gas station in the 15700 block of state Highway 6. The story caused an international media blitz and public debate about how far a parent should go to discipline a child.
Heaven And Jail
All along, Robbins has contended he was forced to do something after his daughter’s truancy threatened to land him and his wife, Paula, both whom struggle to scratch out a living, behind bars.
On at least two occasions when Heaven was brought before Nelson for truancy last year, the judge warned Robbins that he and his wife would be fined and faced jail time if they couldn’t keep their daughter in school.
State law makes parents responsible for keeping their underage children in school. More than once, Nelson asked the Robbins if they had considered corporal punishment in solving Heaven’s truancy problem, Robbins claims.
On the advice of his attorney, Robbins, who faces a possible prison term of two to 10 years for the injury charge and 180 days to two years in jail for child endangerment, declined last week to talk about his case. The charges each carry a possible fine of up to $10,000.
In previous interviews, Robbins, who mows lawns for a living, said he was opposed to spanking his daughter, but had to do something to stay out of jail.
“I wasn’t going to take a piece of lumber to my child,” Robbins said. So, after his own research on corporal punishment and going by his own interpretation of Nelson’s message, Robbins shackled Heaven twice, once to a bed after she attempted to sneak out of their mobile home.
Robbins has insisted he padded Heaven’s leg with socks to keep the chains from biting into her flesh and he never injured her. He claims he thought using shackles was a form corporal punishment. Heaven has said the shackles caused her no injury.
Robbins has said he wants to use Nelson’s statements as a legal defense. Whether they will be is unclear. Robbins’ attorney, Tad Nelson, no relations to the judge, could not be reached for comment.
“That’s what the man told me to do,” Robbins has said. “He kept suggesting it, and I saw paddles laying all over the place.”
Shocked And Appalled
Nelson said he was shocked and appalled by Robbins’ accusations and would never advise anyone to shackle a child.
“I’ve never had anyone go to the extreme of shackling or tying up or putting anyone in a closet and to try to use the excuse that ‘The judge told me to do it,’” Nelson said. “I was absolutely appalled.” Robbins is not accused of locking Heaven in a closet. Nelson said Robbins has yet to accept responsibility for his actions.
Robbins’ story drew news crews from all over the world to Santa Fe, a city that in 2000 came under media scrutiny when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a bid by school officials to hold student-led prayers before football games.
That same year, local leaders joined Anti-Defamation League officials in unveiling towering signs, “Santa Fe is no place for hate.” The signs went up after Phillip Nevelow, 13, a Jewish student accused schoolmates of threatening him and engaging in anti-Semitic harassment.
The town, which some say has gotten a bad rap, has long had to live down a reputation for racial prejudice and religious intolerance. And rumors have long been around that Nelson is a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The judge says he’s heard them and denies them, saying the rumors were started years ago by a political foe.
“I don’t like that stigma, but there’s not a lot I can do about it,” he said. “People are going to say what they’re going to say.”
Judging The Judge
Tina Robinson is a Nelson supporter. Robinson’s teenage daughter has stood before Nelson in court for curfew violations. During her daughter’s case, Nelson did not recommend corporal punishment, Robinson said.
“He read her the riot act on how to behave in the courtroom,” said Robinson, whose daughter was directed by Nelson to perform community service. “He is very understanding and very kind. It saved her life. She wouldn’t be alive today without Mike Nelson.”
Corporal punishment isn’t for every child, Nelson said, and the decision to spank is left to a parent. “I may have had a few parents who said, ‘I just don’t believe in corporal punishment.’ I respect any person’s belief. But if you’ve tried everything else, and it hasn’t worked, why miss the opportunity to see if this will work?,” he said.
On a recent Friday morn-ing, when the regular stream of small claims disputes and truancy cases weren’t before him, Nelson remained unwavering on his spanking position.
That day, the famous board of education lay in ruin, cracked in half by a nervous parent who missed her mark and whacked a table. Nelson had a backup paddle, neatly engraved with the words “Hon. Judge Nelson.”
Reared by strict Pentecostal parents, Nelson said his father was not a man who spared the rod. Nelson is the father of eight children from three marriages. Four of the children were adopted. All are familiar with the paddle, Nelson said. Still, all children are different, he said, and not all are in need of a spanking.
“It takes some longer to get it in their head they just can’t do these things without suffering the consequences,” he said.
A recent U.S. trend has been to abandon spanking, with corporal punishment opponents saying it teaches children that violence is an acceptable resolution to a problem.
But some Santa Fe residents see it differently. “Honey, I think it’s the best idea God ever created,” said Bridget Louvier, 73. Louvier’s four sons already were grown before Nelson took office. Still, she has supported the judge during elections.
“My mother always told me that all that padding on the rear end, that’s for you to spank them. There’s no better place to pop them than on their little heinies to get their attention. And guess what? No more problems.”
By supervising corporal punishment, Nelson said he prevents it from getting out of control. “I can’t think of a more anger-free, controlled environment,” he said.
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See Jordan Riak's letter to Galviston County Daily News, March 30, 2003.