The 14-year-old boy came to Hennepin County District Court alone one recent morning because his mom had become ill in the car on the way and returned home, he told juvenile referee Susan Carlson.
"I'm glad you're here," she said warmly to the boy, in trouble for truancy. She arranged for him to be driven to a much-anticipated psychological evaluation.
The next truant teen came in with both of his divorced parents. His mom said her heart was breaking because she couldn't get through to her son.
After much discussion, Carlson gave the boy one last shot at attending school. "I won't see you again, so good luck. We want you to succeed," she told him. "Do it for me as a retirement present."
Carlson, wife of former Gov. Arne Carlson, has just retired from her post as a part-time referee, where she wore the black robe and performed most duties of a judge, to focus on what she believes is an underlying and undiagnosed problem for many troubled juveniles: fetal alcohol syndrome. "If a child has organic brain damage, we really need to factor that into what we're doing," she said.
Since she began in the courts in 1995 during her husband's second term, Carlson has seen scores of families and teens in pain and distress, but she found their court records lacking.
"The more I read, the more I thought, 'We are missing something here,'" Carlson said. "I was overwhelmed with the whole history of chemical dependency in the families."
Many of the troubled teens had family histories of alcohol abuse and had been exposed to the drug in the womb, causing brain damage, she said. Diagnosis and intervention -- the earlier the better -- can help many, she said.
Children can be screened based on facial characteristics and then tested.
Carlson has a success story. Early screening a few years ago led to the diagnosis of a young man who had been involved in some trouble, including domestic assault. "It was almost a sense of relief to him to understand why his brain wasn't working," she said.
The boy had earned zero credits in high school, but she sent him to a group home; he got a 90 percent on his graduation equivalency test and joined the Army.
Absent an accurate diagnosis and help, "he was headed to be part of the prison system," she said.
When she became a juvenile referee, Carlson started to see lots of children in trouble and stress. She'd come home from work and talk about what she had seen. "It drove Arne nuts," she said. "He'd say, 'Susan, what do you want me to do?'"
Carlson realized she was in a unique position to do something,
In 1998, she founded the Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (MOFAS). The statewide nonprofit aims to promote education and prevention regarding alcohol-related birth defects. The work stemmed from her research as the co-chair of the Action for Children Commission established by Gov. Carlson in 1991 to assess the life of children in Minnesota.
Hennepin County District Judge Kevin Burke appointed Susan Carlson, saying it was obvious she cared about children from their first meeting. "If you sit in those courts -- family or juvenile -- they are emotionally charged. It's pretty easy to get people mad at you," Burke said, but added that he never got complaints about Carlson, who conveyed dignity and caring from the bench. "Anybody who talks to her knows she has a calming influence and she's approachable."
At 58, she has reassessed her life. Last summer, her brother was diagnosed with a malignant, inoperable brain tumor. Doctors also found a tumor on Carlson's liver. Although her tumor was benign, she decided it was time for a new focus.
Her daughter is out of college and employed, her husband is 72 and left the governor's office in 1999. In addition to his corporate board and political commentary work, Gov. Carlson is a "wonderful house husband" who cleans and has dinner on the table when she gets home, his wife said.
Much needs to be done
While the couple intends to spend more time at their Florida waterfront property, Carlson also has plans for her fight against fetal alcohol syndrome.
She wants to develop a model for training judges about the syndrome and then travel the country to talk about why screening, diagnosis and treatment of fetal alcohol syndrome makes a difference. "It's like a disability," she said. "We learn how they learn and if they have sensory problems. ... You begin to understand why they do what they do." In addition to working as a lawyer and lobbyist, Carlson began her career as a page in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She has the experience of having worked in all three branches of state government, experience she believes gives her a unique platform for fighting the syndrome.
She would like to build up a cadre of lawyers in Minnesota who are familiar with the syndrome and can help adopted and foster kids.
"Arne's going to read this and say, 'I thought you were going to retire,'" she said, adding, "There's so much that needs to be done."
Known for her warmth, intelligence and kindness, Carlson will be missed, those who worked with her say.
"She's really smart. Unlike a lot of lawyers and judges, her focus isn't on beating you over the head with how impressive she is," said U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen. The two worked together in Hennepin County juvenile court.
Her work with fetal alcohol syndrome is particularly impressive because generally it's difficult to get money for preventive measures, "especially when you're telling people what to do," Ericksen said.
Jamie Smith, who now works in communications for Hennepin County, worked for Carlson as a clerk and admired her ability to balance family life and work while seizing on the fetal-alcohol issue. All the eye-catching signs on buses and public-service announcements are a result of her work, Smith notes.
"Now that she's retired, we're going to see some really great things happen," Smith said.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747