The walls in Ben Gonring’s office are lined with children’s artwork. Many of the pieces belong to his four children, but one wall is covered with ones done by his clients.
On one wall of his office, in the top corner, is the first piece he put up that was done by a client. It’s a metallic engraving of a buccaneer.
The client, at the time Gonring came into his life, was a boy who was very much alone. The state had terminated his parents’ rights to him and his brother. The client was thrust into the foster system because his grandmother could only afford to care for one child and had chosen his brother. He never got adopted and got into all kinds of trouble, both as a child and as an adult.
Gonring represented the client until he aged out of the juvenile system but got a chance to visit him while he was out on bail. The client brought out some sugary shredded wheat cereal for himself, offered Gonring some sugary soda before pouring some for himself, then brought out a large chocolate cake he had purchased for Gonring’s visit.
“It’s the saddest case I’ve ever had, but I will hold on to that wonderful memory, of that glimpse of a young man who never got the full chance to be a kid,” Gonring said.
That was the last time Gonring saw the client, who ended up committing suicide in prison.
That client is just one of many children Gonring has represented over his more than 20 years at the State Public Defender’s office.
Dorothea “Dee Dee” Watson, who has worked with Gonring at the public defender’s office for 22 years, says children take a liking to Gonring because he is very warm, gentle and takes the time to help them understand the process they are going through. Most children, she noted, have never encountered the legal system.
“It never ceases to amaze me how he never loses track of that,” Watson said. “It might be his 900th case, but it’s his client’s first.”
Gonring has not only become an expert in juvenile court law and juvenile advocacy, but he is also a voice for children outside of the courtroom.
For example, he successfully headed up efforts to eliminate a policy in Dane County that required children to be shackled in the courtroom. Now, it’s done only if the prosecutor requests it.
In the end, it is that one client’s case that keeps Gonring going, hoping to change the system so that children’s lives aren’t defined by single bad decision.
“He inspires me because that’s why I do this,” Gonring said. “I want to fight for kids like him.”