Juvenile Court Is a Place for Weddings Too

Juvenile Court, Kearny Mesa. Downstairs, it's bedlam. Upstairs, it's beautiful. Below, on the first floor, a mom is howling at the sentence her child has just gotten. Here, upstairs in Bea Dollar's little office, baby Sean is googling and his teen-age mom is asking if she can get married. Leah and Kraig are two kids. Two beautiful kids, 16 and 17. High schoolers. Parents already.

They're here facing Deputy Clerk Nicole Walker to get the piece of paper that will license them to mutate from high school kids to the most respectable status known to society, husband and wife.

This office sees the tip of many icebergs. By the time people get here, they have mixed with the law, been through the juvenile courts, or they have to come here to show the military they don't have a police record.

Mostly the room fills with attorneys, parents deprived of their children by the courts, probation officers, social workers. All wanting access to the extremely confidential records of juveniles. Among them, every day, a sprinkling of teen-agers, some seeking legal emancipation from their parents' jurisdiction.

But most come to ask a judge's permission to get married, even though one or both of them is not yet 18.

Little do they know that the tallish lady with the awesome title of division chief of the Juvenile Court is one of them. Bea Dollar was a child bride herself, wedded at 17 in a marriage that lasted eight years. But her second marriage has lasted 24 years, and her personal and professional life have left her an unblemished romantic. "This is a happy office. I have shed many tears with my young brides and grooms."

Each year her judge approves about 350 juvenile licenses and Dollar marries about 150. "The eyes, sometimes they melt your heart. Maybe 70% of the girls are pregnant, but you can tell by the way they look at each other the ones that are in love. Mostly, I've been surprised. It's beautiful."

The way Kraig Stahl and Leah Hartness look at each other and their baby, you know they're in love. But you can also see the thorns of their rose patch. Today is the climax of a year of drama for them and their families. They're both 11th graders at Mira Mesa High School. Their baby, Sean, is 3 months old. Leah is blonde, sylph-like, achingly beautiful. Kraig is fair, still with the awkward ranginess of youth, but eyes that have been softened by the enormous emotional mountains of the past 12 months.

Leah's mom, Anne, is with them, holding Sean at this same desk where other mothers come to cry over the counter top, begging to be allowed to see the children the state has taken away from them.

Anne Hartness hugs and coos at Sean while the couple start filling out their license application. Nobody is tense, least of all her. She's obviously happy to have another baby to cuddle. "The biggest difference in our household is the things I yell at Leah. Before it was 'Clean up your room!' Now it's 'Put these bottles away! 'Clear up these diapers!' "

But there has been more to it than that for the two teen-agers and their families. Far more. They were dating last year. Leah became pregnant. They went through those secret tortures, suddenly alone with their secret. It's not as if the social forces of disapproval at school and in society are anything like they were 20 years ago. But still, they're there. And the prospect of having a baby out of wedlock and in high school was nothing less than terrifying.

Anne Hartness said, "I thought we'd taught her the right ways. And I would prefer them to wait to marry, if it wasn't for Sean here. But he's made me a happy grandmother, and I'm not the type to breast-beat--'Where did we go wrong?' Principles are empty when someone you love is standing there in front of you crying and telling you she's going to have a baby."

Leah and Kraig decided to be up-front about it all the way. "Why not?" she asks. "We love each other. When I knew, there was no question about abortion or adoption. He was mine. I wanted to have him." At school Leah went straight and told her soccer team. They were the first to congratulate her. Kraig became known as 'Pops'. And at their church, everybody has been supportive.

"It was a funny thing," says Kraig, "but once we had opened up, everybody started coming up to us and telling us things they had been keeping all wrapped up. That way, it's been great."

So they're here to get a license. They're getting married. And they're going to do it properly, at their small Pentecostal church on Aug. 23 before a small group of friends and relatives. Then Kraig will move into the Hartness household, and Leah's younger brother, Gregg, will move into a new room her dad's building specially.

Kraig and Leah have been working part time and plan to continue. And they'll go back to school, just as if nothing had happened. Nothing and everything.

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