When Daniel R. Hawkins became the third judge in the history of the Franklin County Environmental Court three years ago, he was aware that his predecessors, Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. and Harland H. Hale, occasionally convened trials on-site.

When Daniel R. Hawkins became the third judge in the history of the Franklin County Environmental Court three years ago, he was aware that his predecessors, Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. and Harland H. Hale, occasionally convened trials on-site.

Speaking to a group of Block Watch coordinators from the Northland area last week at the Strategic Response Bureau on Morse Road, Hawkins said he initially thought holding court at the scene of a neighborhood complaint was "gimmicky, a public-relations thing."

His first year in office, though, Hawkins held a session of environmental court at the home of a person with hoarding disorder. It brought home two things, the judge said.

First, hoarders suffer from a very real, very severe mental illness.

"I thought it was people who collected too many Barbie dolls or baseball cards," Hawkins said. "It is a serious mental-health issue."

Second, there's no substitute for observing a situation firsthand.

"It gives you a better sense of what the neighbors are dealing with," Hawkins told Block Watch volunteers.

The judge was accompanied at his appearance before the group by Joshua Harmon, his chief environmental specialist.

They talked in general about the work of the court, which was created by the Ohio General Assembly in 1991 and given exclusive jurisdiction over building, housing, air pollution, sanitation, fire safety and property maintenance cases, both civil and criminal. Franklin County Environmental Court handles between 800 and 1,000 cases a month.

"All those cases come to me and only me," Hawkins said. "These are some of the worst of the worst properties that get brought to my court."

Elsewhere in the state, such matters are randomly assigned.

"One judge might do one thing, another might to something different," Hawkins said.

During their presentation, he and Harmon also focused specifically on one of their newest initiatives: a hoarding-response program, started after consultation with officials at the ADAMH board.

"There was nothing out there to send these people to to help their mental-health issues," Hawkins said.

"It's not a learned trait," he said. "You didn't get it from your parents."

The American Psychiatric Association estimates as much as 6 percent of the population has some degree of hoarding disorder, although other estimates place that figure much higher, Harmon said. Even at the low end, he said, that means 76,000 residents of Franklin County alone are affected.

Under the pilot program, which has been in effect for about 18 months and so far has had only 12 cases, hoarders aren't simply ordered to clean up their property and get rid of excess belongings in 30 days or else, Hawkins said.

"Upon placement in the program, the individual is provided with in-home assistance and in-office therapy to identify what triggers the desire to gather and keep items, and how to progress to a place of item disposal and management," according to a brochure about the pilot project, available on the court's website, environmentalcourt.us.

According to the website, "The term of probation established by the court will include a monitoring schedule to ensure long-term success."

"It's much more individualized," Hawkins said. "So far, we're cautiously optimistic about where it's going."

"This is revolutionary, honestly," Harmon said.

kparks@thisweeknews.com

@KevinParksTW1