Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 23, 2016

Making an impact

Special magistrate Andrea Cribben-Acosta hopes to change lives through her work at Hamilton County Juvenile Court

La Paz recently honored Andrea Cribben-Acosta as a Latino community leader. Cribben-Acosta is a special magistrate and serves as in-house counsel at Hamilton County Juvenile Court. She is also the founder of Olivenica & Cribben Law Office. - Photograph by David Laprad

Andrea Cribben-Acosta tried to escape her destiny, but no matter where she went, it found her and impressed its purpose upon her. Today, as special magistrate and court legal director at Hamilton County Juvenile Court, she can see how each step along her journey prepared her for what lie ahead.

Cribben-Acosta’s first attempt at dodging fate came when she left her job as a parole officer in her home country of Puerto Rico, where she was assigned to the sex offenders office. When she took the job, she didn’t know she’d be dealing with the victims of child pornography.

It was painful work, so Cribben-Acosta became a licensed attorney and went into private practice. She chose to do criminal and family law, thinking it would safeguard her from the heartbreaking cases she’d worked as a parole officer. She didn’t fare much better. “I’m a magnet for trouble,” she says, laughing.

When Cribben-Acosta and her family moved to Chattanooga in 2010, she decided to change her focus to immigration law. But it was more of the same. “I got trafficking, battered wives, and asylum for children,” she says – without laughing.

Juvenile Court Judge Robert Philyaw, impressed with Cribben-Acosta’s expertise and years of experience in a variety of legal disciplines, wanted to make her a special magistrate. She accepted the appointment, and in December of last year, consigned herself to where providence had led her.

As special magistrate, Cribben-Acosta handles specific dockets, including detention and truancy; as court legal director, she offers counsel to the court’s dependency and neglect department, provides legal and logistical information for the truancy department, helps to manage youth court, and sits in on recovery court, which is the juvenile equivalent of adult drug court.

“The judge believes the sooner we get kids into treatment and give them tools to use, the greater the chance they’ll come out of adolescence a little better, in spite of their surroundings,” Cribben-Acosta says.

Leaving private practice to become a special magistrate has not sheltered Cribben-Acosta from the kinds of cases that have pursued her since the beginning of her career. If anything, it’s placed her in the thick of some of the most upsetting matters in Hamilton County. “People think truancy is no big deal,” she says. “But when a 7-year-old hasn’t been to school in 88 days, it’s a parenting problem; missing school is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Instead of trying to escape again, Cribben-Acosta faces each challenge with a sense of purpose. “I used to try to hide from these kinds of cases because they hurt me,” Cribben-Acosta says. “But I have learned that you attract the things you were brought into this world to deal with, and you will not be sent tasks you are not able to handle.”

Cribben-Acosta has a saying she says empowers her in her most challenging moments: “When God commands, He enables.”

With this in mind, Cribben-Acosta presses forward, praying she can steer the troubled youth who appear before her onto a better path. “I hope I have been effective in catching things early, and either dissipating or delaying them,” she says.

The fruit of Cribben-Acosta’s work shows she has been of great use. She tells the story of a 15-year-old battered girl from Guatemala who’d been trafficked in Chattanooga, and how the young woman’s rehabilitative encounter first with juvenile court and then with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) enabled her to turn her life around.

“She didn’t know she’d been trafficked. Her mom and dad had a land debt in Guatemala, and they offered her as payment,” she says. “She thought that was normal, and she saw it as her way out. But as soon as she arrived here, [the man who brought her to the U.S.] forced her to have sex and she became pregnant.

“The case came to me a child custody matter. The man had taken their child to an ER alleging the mother had put the baby in contact with someone who had sexually molested her. I started asking her questions I only knew to ask because I know what happens in Guatemala.”

The young woman trusted Cribben-Acosta to bring ICE into the picture. Her faith was well placed. The girl now has a full-time job, and officials are working on making her a permanent resident.

There have been other cases, such as the one in which a girl made the honor roll after being on the truancy docket. Cribben-Acosta set the case for review multiple times until both the girl and her mother complied with all of the conditions. “It was an uphill battle,” she says. “But every now and then, I get a little reward when I see the results of my work.”

Cribben-Acosta’s fortitude sprouted out of an intense passion for helping others. This ferocity sometimes manifests itself in ways that stops people in their tracks. “Sometimes, I think I’m too rough on people, but it’s only because I want to help them,” Cribben-Acosta says. “To do that, I have to get my point across.”

Perhaps the youth who appear before Cribben-Acosta would feel better knowing they’re not the only ones to be subjected to her fervor; her two daughters have been on the receiving end of it, too, but only when it’s been warranted. “Hispanic women are expressive and loud,” she says, laughing. “But we are equally expressive and loud with praise for a job well done.”

Regardless of how Cribben-Acosta’s zeal and enthusiasm come across, she’s proud of her heritage. Born to a Columbian mother and a father from Chicago, she was three-years-old when she arrived in Puerto Rico, where Levi Strauss had sent her dad to manage a plant. Cribben-Acosta returned to the U.S. as a young woman to study psychology at Purdue University in Indiana. Although she intended to earn her Ph.D., she came to realize that while being a psychologist would put her in a position to help people, she’d have no control over the process, and she’d never be able to see the results of her work. So, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree, Cribben-Acosta attended law school instead.

“I wanted to be able to use my knowledge of psychology from a more powerful position,” she says. “I also wanted to have more control over the process and a more active role in the outcome. I wanted to feel the impact when I did something.”

After earning her Juris Doctor in 2001, Cribben-Acosta had doubts about working as an attorney, so she became a U.S. probation officer with the U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico. Although the position allowed her to draw on her backgrounds in psychology and the law, working in the sex offenders office took a toll, and in 2006, Cribben-Acosta founded Olivenica & Cribben Law Office.

Cribben-Acosta never expected to leave Puerto Rico, but as she and her husband, Hector Olivenica, began to raise a family, they realized they wanted to move to the U.S. They had visited Chattanooga a number of times to see family, and had grown to love the city. So when they decided to begin a new life elsewhere, their destination was clear.

“We were attracted to the quality of life in Chattanooga,” she says. “Puerto Rico is beautiful but very hectic.”

Cribben-Acosta and her husband didn’t just uproot their family; they also moved their law firm. Once settled in, they were pleased to see that the Hispanic community in Chattanooga was growing, but also distressed to see that its people largely had no legal representation. Hoping they could make a difference, the couple took a leap of faith and reopened their firm.

They landed on their feet. Not only did Cribben-Acosta and Olivenica identify a niche in which they were able to make a living, as the only fully Hispanic law firm in Chattanooga, they were able to begin helping others, as they had hoped.

Part of the firm’s ability to assist its clients came from Cribben-Acosta and Olivenica hiring only native Spanish speakers with a first-hand understanding of Hispanic culture. “It’s important to not only speak their language but to also understand where they came from,” Cribben-Acosta says. “They need to see that you understand what it’s like to live like them.”

As the product of an immigrant mother, Cribben-Acosta knows what that life is like. When her mother and father married, they initially lived in Texas. Although Cribben-Acosta’s mother was hired for her superb work ethic, she didn’t speak English, and as a result, “suffered such injustices and humiliation,” Cribben-Acosta says.

“Those things are in my genetic make-up. They bother me. It’s nauseating to me to see anyone go through those things,” she says.

But out of that thorny beginning has grown a success story that inspires others. Of the three children Cribben-Acosta’s parents raised, one is a pilot for Spirit Airlines, one is a recruiter for a university in Sweden, and one is a special magistrate and an attorney.

Cribben-Acosta and her husband are now doing everything they can to ensure their daughters, 13 and 16, also thrive. “We’re an immigrant family success story,” Cribben-Acosta says. “And that is how we are raising our kids – with open minds and diversity being the norm.”

Cribben-Acosta’s work doesn’t begin and end at juvenile court. Instead, in the years since she came to Chattanooga, she’s given back part of what she says she’s been blessed to receive. Previously, Cribben-Acosta has done free legal consultations at La Paz, talked with Spanish churches about immigration, and volunteered at homeless shelters through her church. She’s also been a member of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, and served on the board of the Chattanooga Ballet.

Cribben-Acosta’s current volunteer work is focused on her church and family. At Connect Church in Collegedale, she serves as a mentor in youth groups, sharing the mistakes and success stories she’s seen with the young people there. And Cribben-Acosta is the parent coordinator for her oldest daughter’s church-sponsored volleyball team, meaning she’s the one who decides who drives, brings water, serves as a line judge, and so on.

Given Cribben-Acosta’s experience as a magistrate, one might assume she’d be a natural as a line judge. But one would be wrong, as serving in the position requires something she finds very difficult: silence. “I can’t cheer!” she says. “Not for my daughter or her team.” Fortunately, Cribben-Acosta says, recalling her favorite saying, “God enables.”

Cribben-Acosta is not all work and no play. She likes to get her hair and nails done – she says she’s girly that way – and she’s taking a CrossFit class, which she likens to having a near-death experience three times a week.

Cribben-Acosta laughs at the comparison, revealing her ever-present joy. Even though she’s known for her fiery moments, this aspect of her personality makes the biggest impression of all. Cribben-Acosta has seen and heard things that could crush a weaker soul, but she’s not only stronger for having encountered them, she has a hopeful and positive spirit that sees potential in people who don’t see it in themselves.

Cribben-Acosta is also a singular person, not because she’s the only woman magistrate in juvenile court, or the only Hispanic magistrate in Hamilton County, but because she uses what she uniquely knows and understands to help others. Cribben-Acosta no longer runs from destiny, but has fully embraced it, and the lives of others will be better for it.