AIKEN - For most up-and-coming prosecutors, family court, where juveniles are the defendants, is a steppingstone to a career prosecuting adults.
Most stay just long enough to be promoted out, and filling the position can prove difficult.
"You talk to other solicitors, and they don't like family court," says Serena McDaniel, the assistant solicitor for family court in Aiken, Barnwell and Orangeburg counties. "They don't think it's real court. To them it's kiddie court."
Mrs. McDaniel, recently honored with the Ernest F. Hollings Award for Excellence in Family Court Prosecution as South Carolina's juvenile solicitor of the year, believes her vocation is as vital as the jobs of her more celebrated colleagues.
"I think it can be more important than general sessions court," where major felonies are tried, she says. "I think it's important that we get to them now, when we can possibly make a difference."
Mrs. McDaniel, an outgoing 34-year-old who was born in Long Island, N.Y., is the rare prosecutor who prefers working with juvenile cases. She has plenty to fill her workday; as many as 900 cases involving larceny, vandalism, truancy and the like each year, with as many as 200 cases pending at any given time. About a dozen cases are disposed of in Family Court each Thursday.
She sees her role as different from that of an average prosecutor, who is charged with protecting the interests of society and individual crime victims.
"I also have to consider my defendants," who can range in age from 10 to 16. "The idea behind this system is to help these kids."
With a combination of intelligence, compassion and a New Yorker's assertiveness, Mrs. McDaniel has earned her peers' respect in a position that often goes unheralded in the public eye. Her cases seldom make headlines, and Family Court employs a veil of confidentiality to protect the interests of young defendants.
"She's committed to it," says her boss, Second Circuit Solicitor Barbara Morgan. "She knows her calling - she wants to be a juvenile prosecutor. And she has a disposition that lends itself to dealing with complexities and challenges of juvenile prosecution."
Mrs. McDaniel commutes each day to work from Lexington, where she lives with her husband and two children. She worked for Ms. Morgan from 1996 to 1998, after a stint as a staff attorney with the South Carolina Supreme Court, then took time off to have her first child.
After a brief tenure as a legal instructor at South Carolina's Criminal Justice Academy, she returned to the solicitor's office and the job she enjoys most, one that offers a great deal of autonomy and latitude in decision-making.
While the frustrations of heavy caseloads, parental neglect and understaffed agencies come with the job, Mrs. McDaniel can't envision doing anything else.
"Most people do think I'm crazy," she said.
SERENA M. MCDANIEL
EDUCATION: Clemson University, 1991; law degree, University of South Carolina, 1994
HOME: Lexington, S.C.
FAMILY: Husband, Bert; children Rebecca, 5, and Riley, 15 months
HOBBY: She's an avid amateur soccer player.
QUOTE: "The idea of my job is to help, not hurt."
Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110.