LINCOLN – Retired Army Lt. Col. Rene Remillard relaxed at a table at a coffeehouse on Route 116 Thursday afternoon, promising he'll never forget how he escaped trouble when he was a young teen growing up in Blackstone.
“I was 15 or 16 at the time, and one night my friends and I were at the Castle Restaurant in Woonsocket,” chuckled Remillard, now 70 and a longtime Lincoln resident. “The guys said something like, 'Let's go look at cars.' They wanted to take one for a ride.
“You know teenagers; they sometimes like to be adventurous, and I wanted to be part of the group, but there was no way I was going to do something like that,” he continued. “I heard my dad's voice telling me, 'It's time to go home. Don't do anything crazy,' and I did.
“I found out the next morning (at then-Blackstone High) that a couple of them got arrested for stealing a car and trying to elude police. I remember being really glad I listened to my father – and my conscience.”
That's just one reason he decided to involve himself with the Lincoln Juvenile Hearing Board, which was formed in September 2001 (shortly after the horrific events of 9/11). Another is pretty simple: He didn't want to let down his wife, Sharon (whom he affectionately calls his “General”).
“She recruited me,” grinned Remillard, who spent 38 years as an Army (and Reserves) medic/nurse, earned his Bachelor's of Nursing from Rhode Island College in 1978 and gleaned a Master's in Health Care Administration and Counseling from Cambridge College in 1982. “She was handling some of the pension programs (for a Providence life insurance company), those for town employees, and she told me Lincoln was forming a juvenile hearing board.
“Some people asked her, 'You must know some people who'd be interested,' and she said, 'I've got a perfect guy in mind, but I don't know if he'll do it as he just retired.' She came home that night and told me about it, saying, 'I think you'll be great,' but I needed to check it out.”
He did, thanks to some help from then-Police Chief Robert Kells' executive secretary, Liz Gagnon, who scheduled an opportunity to sit in on Cumberland's hearing board.
“I went, and Sharon was right; I loved it,” he stated. “I walked out of there thinking, 'I've got to do this. It's the best way we can help young people who took a misstep to become better citizens.' I thought it would be a perfect fit.”
Remillard experienced his final session as Lincoln's Board Chairman on Tuesday, Jan. 11 – as did colleague Maryanne Grodlowski – due to its maximum service time being three three-year terms. He claimed less than 48 hours later he already missed working with and for the youths and families he's encountered.
“It may sound corny, but I came in hoping I could offer the board a lot of experience – the fact I'm a mental health care professional, a career soldier and someone who has 60-plus years of experience in a variety of areas,” he mentioned. “I can honestly say I've more than exceeded the goals I set for myself, and I think the board has, too.
“What am I leaving? A sense I've learned an awful lot by doing it.”
He admitted not many folks in town, or Rhode Island, know exactly what a juvenile hearing board does, despite the fact there are 32 active boards in its 39 municipalities.
In Lincoln, the “JHB” consists of seven members, five Town Council-appointed volunteers and two alternates. It meets the first Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. at Town Hall's Committee Room, and does so to hear cases of those 18 and younger who have been arrested for misdemeanors or other mischiefs.
“Say there's a shoving match on a school bus, but nothing comes of it but a black eye, the police may decide that's a minor misdemeanor,” he indicated. “If that same fight ends up more raucous, where a weapon or serious injury is involved, the police would give that a court date.
“Our board addresses incidents like the former, because felonies and other crimes we're not allowed to consider,” he continued. “The police chief or the juvenile detective decides if such an action belongs in front of the board.
“The primary goal is to assist the youths in our community, and the focus isn't to punish them severely but to assist them in refocusing their lives on behaving positively. Ninety percent of the time, I get a reference from the juvenile detective,” who now is Patrol Officer Dana Packer.
When asked for a common sort of misdemeanor crime by a teen, he admitted he's seen several stemming from stolen items at Claire's jewelry store at Lincoln Mall.
“That has become a favorite of young people who decide to acquire jewelry and 'forget' to pay for it,” he noted. “That particular agency requires an arrest for any larceny. That type of case usually comes before us.
“We may order restitution or returning the item, and assign them a short essay regarding how they feel the theft's effects had on the community as a whole, the business itself, the police and even the child's family. First-time offenders are often referred to us.
“We've got a great board, as it's diversified, well-educated and is committed and caring,” he added. “It also knows how to put forth discipline. I'd go to war with any of these board members,” who most recently included Remillard, Grodlowski, Jan Wasserman, Anne White and Jim D'Ambra (with alternates being Kara Picozzi and Robert Gagne).
Once the police chief, now Brian Sullivan, or juvenile detective refer a case to the board, Remillard reviews the police report and schedules an appointment. The youth and his parents/guardians then must sign a waiver from Family Court, and also plead guilty in written form.
When the accused and his family report, the juvenile detective reads the arrest document to the board, and Remillard asks the youth to sit within three feet of him “to let them know who's in charge.”
The board then rules on what type of action to take. If it involves driving, it has the power to suspend a license for up to six months.
“The idea is not to be punitive but to have them recognize, however minor the offense may be, that it was wrong,” he stated. “There needs to be a way they recognize their mistakes, and they must be accountable for their actions. I still think it can be done in a positive and creative way, and that the board helps kids refocus on what life is all about. We ask them to live life the right way.
“I usually ask the kid if they fully understand the implications, the fact they signed a waiver admitting guilt, and if they agreed to accept our verdict,” he continued. “As far as I know, over the nine years I was on the board, we've only had two kids who were arrested again for another incident or for failure to appear. Just two.”
In 2010, the board only heard six cases, not to mention several reviews.
“After we render a decision, we must send a monthly report to the state's Family or Juvenile Court's administrator,” Remillard said. “It's great. In all that time, we've never had a letter of complaint or a dispute from any family. Honestly, most people leave thanking us for the help we provided. Most of the kids do, too.
“We've even received notes or letters,” he added. “Most kids who come before us were deserving of an opportunity to refocus their time, energy and intelligence to more productive pursuits, both academically and personally. And it should be noted you don't have to be a juvenile of Lincoln to go before the board. You could come from Warwick or another city if someone is arrested for, say, shoplifting in Lincoln.
“I think the number was lower this year because we've been cooperating so well with the schools, the school resource officers, the police, the principals. I can't say enough about the support we've received, and the welcoming we've gotten from the police, namely Chief Sullivan and his representatives.”
He revealed the board isn't well-known in town, despite the fact it saves a lot of money because all members are volunteers; it prevents overloads in court dockets; and it reduces the amount of attorneys necessary, in addition to court costs.
Despite his retirement from the 94th Army Command's 455th General Hospital in Providence in 1995, and from the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health (where he left as assistant director) in 2000, Remillard has been working as the Rhode Island Community and Justice organization's chairman of the state's juvenile hearing board sub-committee.
In fact, back in September, he and that sub-committee – also consisting of Sullivan, Woonsocket Police Juvenile Detective Alan Leclaire and attorney Pamela Humphreys – just finished revising and updating the state's JHB handbook.
“About two years ago, Chief Sullivan invited me to a meeting sponsored by the Rhode Island Juvenile Hearing Boards and the Judiciary, and I noticed the conversations kept coming back to these boards,” he said. “At the end of the program, I went to the (RICJ) Executive Director Toby Ayers and told her, 'I came here because my chief asked me to, and all I heard about was juvenile problems and issues.
“I also said, 'With all due respect, I haven't met a single soul who represents these boards,' and she explained she didn't invite any because they didn't know what was being done on a community level. She asked me if I'd be interested in coming on board, and I said, 'Absolutely!'
“You know, they tell you in the Army never volunteer for anything, wait until you're assigned, whether you like it or not,” he added with a laugh. “I chose to volunteer, and public service is one reason, helping people is another. I've always been an active and productive person. Being retired and doing little to nothing never appealed to me. I used to play golf, but the heck with that.
“Doing this (with RICJ) is a way to stay connected, keep yourself mainstreamed and continue to exercise your brain cells as well as your body. The last thing I wanted to do is be a lazy guy home watching soaps, not be productive. I also decided that staying active would contribute to my wonderful marriage.”