A Conversation with Mary E. Walker

By: Rachel Bubis

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Mary Walker has experience on the national, state, and local levels serving women and children in the juvenile justice system and managing preventative programs for women and children at risk. Walker has been a practicing attorney for over twenty-five years - having served as General Counsel for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Tennessee, and Senior Referee for the Davidson County Juvenile Court. She was a founder of Renewal House, a long-term residential recovery program for addicted women and their children, and along with others helped launch A Step Ahead Foundation (Middle Tennessee Chapter), an organization that aims to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing FREE long-acting reversible contraception (LARC), the most effective reversible methods of birth control, to women in Middle Tennessee.

Below is a conversation with Rachel and Mary on her life, work, and mission:

Your experience as a social worker informed your decision to become a lawyer and later begin incredible organizations that support women in need such as Renewal House and A Step Ahead Foundation. Can you talk more about your background and what inspired you to help start these organizations?

My first job was with the State of TN as a social worker in child welfare investigating abuse and neglect, and when necessary, removing children from their homes and placing them in foster care and when no return to the home was possible, finding an adoptive home. My husband at the time was in the military, so I worked a lot with the military base, encouraging those families to be foster parents and adopt. After I got divorced, I went to UT School of Social Work to earn a Master’s Degree.  I  worked with children and families to increase the number of adoptive homes available for older children.  I worked closely with a private law firm that would come in the day of the hearing and represent the State using the materials I had developed to present the case to the judge. It finally occurred to me then that I should just become a lawyer myself. I’m better at this than these people (laughs). So, I went to UT College of Law in 1976.

Being a lawyer and social worker has provided me with an invaluable perspective in every job I have had. As a juvenile court referee, I handled all the abuse and neglect cases in Davidson County and I understood poverty and the needs of the children and the parents. I came away from that experience knowing that juvenile judges should be educated more than being a lawyer.   They really should be social workers or trained in child development and treatment modalities to make informed decisions. Very few judges had that background or education. From my social work experience I knew how important it is for a child to be with his or her mother. I knew what resources were available in the community and the importance of strong social work by the Department of Children’s Services. Some lawyers and social workers did not like my involvement, but the Judge backed me up on the new way of operating the court.

What else can you tell us about what you learned in court?

Through my work in juvenile court in 1992, I started noticing some trends. We had an overwhelming number of children coming in foster care because their mother was addicted to crack cocaine. The moms were older and some had jobs and homes, but lost everything as a result of their addiction.  Crack was new to Nashville and there were no long-term treatment options for women coming before the Court. The law required me to terminate those moms’ rights, and put kids up for adoption if they had not made any progress in a certain period of time towards getting clean.  The courts are required to offer services for women to be reunited with their children prior to termination of parental rights. Research shows that generally children are better off with their biological parents as long as they are safe and have their basic needs met. So, I started looking for addiction treatment resources, but there was nothing.

There was no place for these women to go. If they had insurance, the maximum treatment time was 10 days. I realized we needed a long-term treatment program where kids stayed with moms during that treatment.  There was only one place in the state where they had something like that and it was in East TN. When I started gathering statistics, I discovered almost every neglected dependent child I brought into custody, 85% of the time it was because of their moms being crack cocaine addicts. Because of lack of treatment resources and the addictive power of crack, the permanency options for the children were much reduced. Out of this crisis, the idea of starting Renewal House was born.

Now, the Renewal House is in its 21st year of operation and is the only one of its kind in the state. Women may stay at Renewal house with their children for 12 months or longer and undergo treatment together and have access to jobs and education. It’s very successful and has one of the lowest recidivism rates. During their time at Renewal House we offer opportunities for jobs and school and try to make the resources available to stay clean and be able to support their family. We are trying to access more higher paying jobs for our women and affordable housing, which is a real challenge in Nashville.

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Can you tell me about A Step Ahead Foundation (ASAF)?

A Step Ahead provides free IUD’s to women. ASAF started in Memphis, and as a result, over a three year period, they saw a 30% decline in unintended pregnancies. We have been offering services for 18 months here in Middle Tennessee and have given around 400 women free IUD’s and free transportation to the clinic.

There is clearly a growing women’s movement in response to the current social and political climate. We just had the Women’s March. It seems like every day in the news we are hearing about a new powerful man accused of harassment and assault.  What are your thoughts on the #metoo and #timesup movements? Are you optimistic about real change happening in the future?

I do think it’s going to make a big change in the work environment and I think the movement is really important. Men haven’t been held accountable for too long. The #metoo movement is a great first step because it allows women to feel brave enough to say something. I think the fact that people with such high stature in society are coming out with their stories will make a difference. There are no excuses left!

Have you experienced sexism or sexual harassment in your professional career? If so, how did you respond?

When I first started out as a lawyer in 1979 there weren’t that many women lawyers. That’s why we started the Lawyer’s Association For Women to provide support to women and to increase the number of women judges.  But yes, more than one time in the courtroom I have been addressed as “little lady” and “honey.” And one time in Winchester, TN, when I was defending a case as an Assistant Attorney General, the judge was belittling and asked if the “little lady from Nashville wanted to speak”, as if I would not have anything to say. I just don’t think he was used to seeing a woman in the courtroom.

I also had a supervisor suddenly kiss me with no warning or explanation. I told him not to do it again, but I didn’t report it. I had a lot of respect for him professionally and I knew his wife and questioned if I had done anything to suggest I was interested in him.  I had not, but this experience shows the automatic response of, is this my fault?  He didn’t do it again and it was not mentioned again. Should I have reported him, perhaps.

The work you do is so important and meaningful, but I imagine extremely difficult at times. There’s a lot of talk about “self care” these days. How do you stay positive and have fun?

I get out and do stuff! Raising my daughter Elizabeth was a lot of fun. I played softball until two years ago. I like to garden, read and watch movies. I guess you’ve just got to look into yourself and figure out what type of work you can emotionally handle. The abuse and neglect cases are extremely sad and disturbing, but I feel like I was really making a difference. I didn’t finish a day that I did not feel I had done something to make a child’s life better or at least safer.  

Sometimes people wonder why I did not practice a different kind of law and make more money, but that was not what I wanted and I was fortunate to know that. I feel like it is a privilege to do the type of work I got to do. I’m very lucky. It’s really important to find your passion or your spark! It also helps to work with people you like, or at least respect. In the early days of Legal Services where I worked right out of law school, we would work 12 or more hour days, but as the evening wore on, we would balance the important work we were doing with opening a beer and talking strategy and the law while we worked.

It’s also really important to have a support group. I am not married now, but have wonderful friends. When my daughter Elizabeth would be sick as a kid, my friends would take care of her if her father and I had to work. Sometimes though, I would bring her with me and have her lay in a sleeping bag under the courtroom bench at Juvenile Court while trials were going on (laughs). My courtroom officer would check on her and would sneak her Sprite!

If you could offer advice to women starting out in your field (or otherwise), what would you say?

Find your spark! If your job doesn’t fulfill you and feels routine, look around you and find something that excites you. Get involved in something outside of yourself. I’m convinced that when people find something that gets them outside themselves it makes them happier.

One thing I’ve learned is that to make change, you just have to get a group of concerned citizens together and get them the right information, give them a story they can respond to. I’ve also learned that if you get women involved things will actually get done. They are the ones that will do it. Don’t think you can’t change the world -  if you get the right people together and work hard you really can!

To learn more about or get involved with the Renewal House or A Step Ahead Foundation check out their websites: