New chief of Defender Association of Philadelphia known for taking different approach

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Keir Bradford-Grey talks with Bill Gordon during her last day as chief public defender in Montgomery County, at the county courthouse. (BEN MIKESELL / Staff Photographer)

The allegations were startling: Prosecutors said parents had starved their 6-year-old to the point that he looked like a child from a Third World country.

But something didn't seem right to Keir Bradford-Grey, who was the new Montgomery County chief public defender when the case began in 2012.

She dug into the case and learned that the boy had not been neglected, but had a medical condition that kept him from absorbing nutrients.

After taking her findings to prosecutors, both sides agreed to a pre-trial diversion program so the family could stay together while officials monitored the boy's treatment.

Bradford-Grey says the case is illustrative of the approach she will take as she moves on to become chief of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

"We're not going to just kind of shuffle people through," she said. "Our mission is to understand our clients' needs, advocate for them on behalf of their cases and then find creative ways to . . . suggest alternatives for them."

In September, Bradford-Grey will become leader of the office where she began her legal career, and replace Ellen Greenlee - the woman who hired her. Greenlee retired in March after 25 years as chief defender.

Bradford-Grey's efforts to transform the Montgomery County public defenders office made her application stand out, said David Rudovsky, president of the board of directors for the Philadelphia Defenders Association.

"When she took it over, it was an office that many people thought did not provide very effective representation for its clients," Rudovsky said when he announced her appointment in June.

Her work in Montgomery County included starting a mentoring program for juvenile offenders; beginning expungement clinics to help offenders clear their records; offering classes for families of defendants to learn about the court system; hiring a social worker to assist clients, and forming a friendly relationship with the district attorney's office.

Good reputation.

Bradford-Grey, 41, grew up in Boston, earned a law degree from Ohio Northern University. She said she applied to the Philadelphia Defenders Association because she was drawn to the office's good reputation.

"Also, I always kind of wanted to live in Philadelphia for a while - I just didn't know I'd stay," said Bradford-Grey, who lives in East Oak Lane with her husband and three children.

After eight years in Philadelphia, she went to work as a federal public defender in Delaware. She was shocked to get a phone call from a member of newly elected Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro's transition team in 2012, asking her to apply for the the county's chief defender job.

She remembered thinking: "I've always wanted to have a larger impact than my individual cases, so why not?"

While the commissioners worked to reduce county spending in many departments, Shapiro said, the public defenders' budget increased - from $3.3 million in 2012 to $4.2 million in 2015 - because Bradford-Grey advocated for important programs.

"She has elevated the stature of the office," he said.

Bradford-Grey began by working to help juvenile offenders. She found that trouble for teens often began with suspensions from school. So the public defenders established a youth court at Norristown High School. Students learn about the court system, hear disciplinary cases, and suggest creative sentences for classmates, such as reading a letter of apology.

For adult offenders, Bradford-Grey introduced participatory defense, or the idea that by learning about the legal system, offenders' families can help public defenders.

At weekly meetings hosted by the Community Action Development Commission in Norristown, families of defendants learn what they can do, such as providing a public defender with a list of possible witnesses or writing a letter to a judge before sentencing.

The families "tell us it works," said facilitator Herb Morris.

Other changes.

Bradford-Grey also made changes inside the public defenders' office. She ensured that defenders interview their clients and learn as much as possible about them before initial court hearings - as she did in the child-starvation case - and hired a social worker for her office.

She also initiated policy that prohibits full-time public defenders from doing private legal defense work.

In 2013, former public defender Sharon Meisler was fired, and sued Bradford-Grey and the county. The federal suit claimed Meisler had been told she lost her job for doing private legal work on county time, but alleged she had been fired for reporting Bradford-Grey for sending employees an invitation to a political fund-raiser.

Bradford-Grey was dismissed from the suit last month, and the county is in the process of settling the case, said spokesman Frank Custer. He and Bradford-Grey declined to comment. Meisler and her lawyer did not return messages.

Bradford-Grey's work in Montgomery County also included an effort rarely seen in court systems: collaboration between public defenders and prosecutors.

District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman and Bradford-Grey first met in Shapiro's office, and both said they were skeptical of each other. Now, Ferman calls Bradford-Grey a friend.

"She and I personally had to build trust," Ferman said. "So we started talking from the very beginning about ways to work together better."

That led to initiatives such as identifying cases in which defendants were lingering in jail on minor charges awaiting trial dates, wasting time and resources for both sides.

The two women found common ground in a desire to help youth, and last year launched a mentorship program that they both call a highlight of the county's juvenile system.

Instead of going to detention facilities, some juvenile offenders are now paired with mentors through the nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters.

"I think everything that she has done in the public defenders office has been a win-win," Ferman said of Bradford-Grey. "It's been a benefit to her clients and at the same time it's been a benefit to the community."


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