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Kevin Cullen

Hard work, heartbreak for probation officers

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / July 4, 2010

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Trina Higgins is Joao Brandao’s probation officer, and so she went to the house in back of Franklin Field, to make sure Brandao wasn’t feeding her a line of bull when he said he was living there.

“Is your stuff in this closet, Joao?’’

“Yes,’’ he said. “Go ahead, check.’’

Trina Higgins opened the closet and saw that Joao Brandao’s clothes were indeed hanging there. Right above a 7-foot python that looked at Higgins like she was lunch.

She closed the closet door and turned to see that a pit bull and Brandao were staring at her.

“You know, there’s a snake in there,’’ Higgins said.

“Oh, yeah,’’ Brandao said. “I probably should have told you about the snake.’’

“That would have been nice,’’ Higgins told him.

The sun was sinking, and Trina Higgins and Galvin Leggett had a list of 25 houses to hit. They enforce curfews, make sure guys aren’t hanging in neighborhoods they’re excluded from under court order, and see whether people keep the promises they made to stay out of jail. They are probation officers, and they regard their charges as Ronald Reagan did the Soviets: trust but verify.

There has been much said and written of late about problems with the Probation Department in Massachusetts, but the problems are not the creation of probation officers like Trina Higgins and Galvin Leggett. They work hard, defy burnout, go into places you couldn’t pay most people to go into, and very often lock up people too dumb to appreciate the break they got when they got probation instead of jail.

“Whatever you say to them at court, it sinks in when you show up at their house,’’ Higgins says. “So we show up at their house.’’

Higgins and Leggett carry a caseload of about 100 people each. They are not desk jockeys. They are not paper pushers. They are in the field, every day.

“These weren’t here when I was here two weeks ago,’’ Higgins said, pointing to two bullet holes in a door on Waldeck Street.

She rang the bell, but nobody answered. She pounded on the door. Nothing. When she looked up to the third-floor window, a child’s face peeked out.

“Did your mom tell you not to answer the door?’’ she asked.

The little kid nodded.

The mother came to the window and sheepishly explained that her older son, the one Higgins was looking for, wasn’t home but would be soon. Trina Higgins told her she could get the younger boy into a summer camp.

Higgins has been doing this for 14 years. She loves it. She was a DSS case worker for seven years before, and sometimes she’ll recognize one of the young adults sitting across from her as the little kid she pulled out of abuse or squalor or both years before.

“It breaks my heart,’’ she says, “because so many of these kids are a victim of their environment. No one’s ever expected them to accomplish anything. I tell these kids if they get a high school diploma or a GED, a valid driver’s license, and a job, I’ll never see them again. But it’s rare you see those three things.’’

Leggett was a DYS worker for 15 years before he joined probation two years ago. He, too, sees the same faces, only a little older.

“You become a good judge of character in this job,’’ he said, steering his car slowly down Kingsdale Street. “You figure out who can make it with a little bit of help. Or who needs a lot of help. And who needs to go to jail.’’

They are professors of the human condition. They’ve heard every lie, excuse, fantabulous tale you can think of. And they are not afraid to get people locked up.

Higgins’ cellphone rang. Bernie Fitzgerald, the chief probation officer in Dorchester, was checking in. Earlier, Fitzgerald told me Higgins was shaken by the recent murder of Troy Nock, a 22-year-old gunned down on Irma Street.

“Trina worked with Troy for a long time,’’ Fitzgerald said. “She was keeping him on the straight and narrow. Troy wasn’t a bad, bad kid. When you make progress with a kid like Troy and then lose him like that, it’s tough.’’

Higgins doesn’t dwell on it. She has too many others to worry about. And the last stop of the night is one of them. His name is Sean, and when he was a toddler, Higgins carried him and his sister out of a house where a man had been murdered. She put them in the back of her car and then she put them in a foster home. And now, 15 years later, she is the boy’s probation officer, for a stolen car rap.

She seemed relieved to see him in the house, an hour before his curfew.

“Sean, Sean, the leprechaun,’’ she sang.

He was doing everything he was supposed to, and Higgins and Leggett allowed themselves a smile.

“How’s your sister?’’ Higgins asked.

“She’s pregnant,’’ Sean replied.

On the way out, Higgins started talking about how beautiful and smart and talented Sean’s sister is. A good student.

“A great singer,’’ Higgins said. “I mean, really talented.’’

I asked how old the sister was.

Higgins paused before opening the car door, then exhaled heavily.

“She’s 16,’’ she said. “She’s 16 years old.’’

The baby Trina Higgins saved 15 years ago is having a baby.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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