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Impact of Volunteer Advocates: Perspective from the Bench Judge Fernando Macias

Judge Fernando MaciasFernando R. Macias, Chief Judge, Third Judicial District Court, County of Dona Ana, New Mexico

Each year, we are reminded of the needs of children through volunteer coat drives, toy drives and food drives, among other initiatives that come together to assist the most vulnerable among us through an emotionally charged period of time.

But all year around, some of those children are navigating a far more stressful process, and the general public is mostly unaware of the nature and magnitude of the strife these children face. The public also does not see the faces or hear the stories of the volunteer heroes who help to shepherd these children through their legal journey.

I refer to children who have been taken from their homes and placed into the custody of the state. It happens all the time, and it is the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) who voluntarily play such a critical role in the outcomes for these children and for their families, and for the community at large.

Much attention is rightly paid in our society to murderers. In fact, a first-degree murder case is routinely the most time-consuming case to come before a district judge. But the cases that routinely take the second-most amount of time are the cases of children whose families have either abandoned them or who have provided such a dangerous environment that the children have been removed.

The cases of the children are sealed, and neither the public nor the media is allowed into the courtroom while the proceedings are underway. The process consists of many different hearings and determinations, all of which build on one another until a final determination can be issued. Each case can take 18 months to many years to resolve.

In each complex case, the future of an innocent child is involved and the stakes are high. Children can come into the custody of the state because they tested positive for methamphetamine at birth; or because their living conditions are inherently dangerous; or because their parents are mentally unstable; or have been incarcerated; or because they've been left for sustained periods without supervision, nutrition or basic hygiene; or because their parents will not attend to their medical needs; or physical and/or sexual abuse by members of their family: The list is horrific, and these are just a few examples.

In every case, a child — or a set of siblings — is placed into a legal process that must be meticulously deliberate about whether families can be fixed enough to be reunited. Sometimes the child is best-served by being placed in foster care, the parent's legal right to the child terminated and the child ultimately placed for adoption. Usually, the system works as it's intended, and the hard work of placing the child in the very best circumstances is achieved.

The worst-case scenarios involve children who enter the system at such an age and in such a level of complexity surrounding their cases that they reach the age of 18 before the issues are resolved or an adoption can be finalized.

Even in the best outcomes, it would be more challenging for the children if not for the Court Appointed Special Advocates whose sole, sworn duty is to help the court help the child. Each of them takes a solemn oath to guard the child's best interests and communicate that view in the courtroom.

I wish I could share specific stories that would drive this point home as hard as it deserves to be received by the general public, but these matters can only be spoken of in generalities.

What the system needs to work better is far more healthy families and far fewer abused, neglected and abandoned children. Until we reach that lofty goal, we desperately need people who care about children to come forward as foster parents, adoptive parents and Court-Appointed Special Advocates.

Come into the lives of these children, and make a difference for them in their time of need, which is not seasonal — like coat, toy and food drives. This need is ongoing, and it can literally change the entire arc of a young, vulnerable life.

These children walk among us. We need more people willing to stand up for them, and to hold their hands, and to show them we care. 

Author Biography: Fernando R. Macias is a District Court Judge for the Third Judicial District Court, County of Dona Ana, New Mexico since 2006. Although a Court of General Jurisdiction, Judge Macias’ primary focus is on adult felony cases and civil abuse and neglect cases. He recently was selected as Chief Judge and serves as the Administrative Authority for the district.

He practiced law for sixteen years in Las Cruces, including three years as District Public Defender and earlier as an Assistant District Attorney. He received his Bachelor of Arts Degree from New Mexico State University and his Juris Doctor Degree from Georgetown University Law Center.

He was a member of the New Mexico State Senate for 16 years including five years as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He also served as the chairman of the Dona Ana County Commission. His past employment includes Executive Director for New Mexico Legal Aid, General Manager of the Border Environment Cooperation Commission, an international institution between the United States and Mexico, as Dona Ana County Manager and Executive Director of the Mesilla Valley Economic Development Alliance.


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