It’s because of her work with children that Audra Ellis was named the Lincoln County Woman of the Year. Her full-time job, which she’s held for just shy of 24 years, is as a juvenile court counselor, which she said is just a fancy word for a juvenile probation officer. Before that, she worked as a social worker for the Cleveland County Department of Social Services.
“Basically, what I do here is like a juvenile magistrate,” she said. “When law enforcement or any other entity chooses to file a charge or a complaint against a juvenile alleging that a crime or some infraction has occurred, they all come through me. I’m basically the one that decides whether or not they have to go to court.”
After reviewing the case, meeting with the child, their parents and others involved, Ellis does all she can to keep these children out of court, especially for first time offenders or misdemeanor cases.
“We try to keep them out of court and put services in place,” she said. “Sometimes there’s no choice and they have to go in front of a judge and face whatever the consequences are.”
Initially, Ellis started out in college as a psychology major and criminal justice minor because the mind has always interested her. When she started to look more into the criminal justice courses, Ellis became more interested in that path. Her mother, who worked for more than 30 years in the clerk of court’s office, was against that decision for fear that she’d end up in a job where she didn’t make much money,
“I essentially blame her because she used to let me come to court and sit in the back of the courtroom and watch the cases,” Ellis said. “That’s what piqued my interest. I met with my advisor and she told me that if I stayed an extra semester, I’d have enough to get a double major and have a degree in criminal justice and psychology.”
She did her internship for her criminal justice degree as a juvenile court counselor in the Shelby office, but needed a job out of college, so she started with the Cleveland County DSS. Ellis recognized that she didn’t want to be a social worker long-term, even though she learned a lot and it was a good experience.
“I knew I wanted to work in the criminal justice system and I felt like where I was needed was with kids,” she said. “Then I decided I needed to go back to school because what I was seeing was 90% of the kids coming through the court system had a mental health diagnosis.”
Ellis got her master’s degree in counseling from Gardner-Webb University in 2003. Her undergraduate degrees are from Appalachian State University.
Married with two children, Drew, who’s a senior at West Lincoln High School, and Addi, who is in the sixth grade at West Lincoln Middle School. They’re both in the band playing the trumpet, which makes Ellis, in addition to all of the other things she does, a band mom and for the past two years she’s been the president of the West Lincoln High School Band Boosters Club.
She also has two part-time jobs, including one working a few hours a week as a mental health clinician at a drug and alcohol detox center in Shelby, Cleveland Crisis and Recovery Center, and the other is teaching an online class in psychology through Gaston College.
“The clinician job uses my master’s degree that this job doesn’t pay me for,” she said. “This job only requires a four-year degree. I need a part-time job because I have two active children and things are very expensive.”
Obviously, Ellis is very busy, and people often ask her how she does it all. She insists that her family is her first priority, which is why she works two part-time jobs, so her children can have the things that they want to have and experience things they want to experience.
“Whatever my kids want to do, I want them to be successful,” she said. “I think a lot of it boils down to because of where I work full-time, I see how it could be as far as kids being involved in the criminal justice system. I think that’s probably why I overcompensate with my kids. I want, as a parent, to know I’ve done everything possible. I want my kids to know that I love them, and I’m involved in what they’re interested in.”
Frequently, the children that Ellis sees who come through the system have parents who aren’t interested in them.
“Of course, there’s a small percentage of parents who do everything they possibly can and their kids just screw up and make a bad decision,” she said. “My role in all of those is to put services in place so we can get them turned around, so they don’t make those same decisions as adults and have permanent records.”
Because children can turn around is another reason Ellis said she prefers to work with children rather than adults.
“I know I can’t save them all, no matter what we try to put in place, it’s still ultimately their call and their choice,” she said. I can’t lay down at night and know that I didn’t try everything to help them. If I make a difference in just one kid’s life, I’ve done my job.”
Doing things for her children is how Ellis ended up attending a banquet that she might have never gone to. Her son told her that he was going to play that national anthem on his trumpet at the Lincolnton-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce Banquet last Thursday.
“They were full in on the lie,” she said. “We went because I’m going to go wherever he asks me to go. He said, ‘Mom I need you to go to this thing with me, I don’t want to go by myself.’ I’m like, okay.”
When her name was called as the recipient of the Woman of the Year Award, Ellis said was sure they made a mistake, but they didn’t. It’s Ellis and others like her who are helping to preserve the future through the children she helps.
“I’m still shocked about it,” she said. “When I got home Thursday night I sat down with the trophy and spun it around and looked at all the names on it. I don’t feel like I even remotely equate to that at all.”