Six years ago the Madison County Juvenile Drug Court judge contacted her and asked her to become a public defender. She was certified to represent children as a guardian ad litem, and from that her work has grown to helping any way she can. She is now one of two attorneys representing children who are delinquent, abused and neglected. On her own, she leads a youth support group and judges the Mock Court at Madison Central High School.
“I’ve seen heart-breaking things; everything from those who are victims of abuse to those who have committed crimes,” she says. “Coping with it is sometimes hard, but I have a sense of purpose that I’m where I need to be, and I try to maintain a balance. I can only do what I can do.
“It’s sometimes hard, but I have a sense of purpose that I’m where I need to be, and I try to maintain a balance. I can only do what I can do.”
O’Neal believes God has given her the sensitivity to work with children. At times she has taken kids who have nowhere to go into her home.
She observes a changing drug scene with Central Mississippi’s teenagers. “Marijuana is a huge problem among this generation and is greatly under estimated by parents and the community,” she said. “They look at marijuana use like the last generation looked at alcohol use. It’s now easier to get than alcohol and cheaper.
“It’s a gateway drug, and I see every day that it is addictive. We have a lot of kids who come to court for shop lifting when drug use is the underlying problem. Drug use is no respecter of race, socioeconomic status, or attendance at public or private school.”
Wanting to go a step farther than helping young people navigate the juvenile court system, O’Neal started a support group, Metamorphosis, four and a half years ago. Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Madison — where her husband, Greg O’Neal, is worship pastor — provides meeting space. “It’s a community thing; a faith-based type of support group,” O’Neal says. “There are kids who really need help and don’t have parental involvement. The counselors and judges at court support it and think it’s a very good thing.”
The group meets once a week and begins with food because teenagers love food. Volunteers from a long list of willing helpers provide the food — usually pizza, drinks and dessert. It takes four months to rotate around the long list of volunteers. “With pizza teenagers tend to talk. We sit in a circle in an unsterile room and check in to see how everyone’s week is going.” O’Neal said. “We talk about things coming up in their lives they’re worried about, and we talk about relationships.”
The rules are honesty and confidentiality in all that’s said and no cell phones allowed. “They’re really good about it. They open up because it’s a safe place,” O’Neal said.
Because she sees results, O’Neal plans to continue the support group. “As long as they’ll come, I will do it,” she affirms. “Starting in January, we’re going to broaden what we’re doing and try to have more community service with projects submitted by volunteers. A lot of these kids do not have a father in the home, and they don’t know how to do lot of things. I want them to be around men who will be good role models.”
Cutting is another trend O’Neal sees among this generation. “Kids who are depressed will self-harm with a sharp instrument in places that parents can’t see and where it’s not life threatening,” she said. “They’ve kind of grown numb and this is a way they can feel pain. For some it’s self-punishment and low self-esteem. Some do it because others do it.”
Finding no printed resource material to help young people overcome addictions, O’Neal wrote a book, The Way Out, published by CrossBooks, a division of LifeWay. She recommends it to parents, grandparents and anyone who wants to help teenagers.
After growing up in Baton Rouge, La., O’Neal went to LSU, then married Greg and attended theological seminary with him in Fort Worth, Texas. With a return to Baton Rouge, she completed an undergraduate degree in music education. She graduated from the Mississippi College School of Law in 2000. “I may be the only music major who went to law school,” she notes. “I have no regrets about law. I love what I do, and all of my past experiences have culminated in what I’m doing now.”
In spite of her legal career, she still considers herself a singer and is involved with the children’s choir at church. She admits to not taking much time for hobbies although she likes to scuba dive.
She is proud of her children, 20-year-old Joshua, an English major at Mississippi College, and 18-year-old Meghan, a Spanish major/Chinese minor at LSU.
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