Working with CASA Programs: In and Out of the Courtroom

Judge Darlene ByrneJudge Darlene Byrne, 126th Judicial District Court, Travis County, Texas, President NCJFCJ and 2015 National CASA Association Judge of the Year

Katy Gallagher-Parker, Staff Attorney

As a Judge, I feel very fortunate to preside in a jurisdiction in which we have a thriving, vibrant CASA program. CASA of Travis County, Texas, currently serves almost 1200 children, which is around 83% of all the children under court jurisdiction in our civil Child Protective Services matters. CASA employees and volunteers work hard to make sure that the interests of our children are represented in court…but they also go far beyond that.

For every jurisdiction, CASA volunteers arguably have their strongest role and value in the courtroom. I like to say that CASA volunteers are my “eyes and ears”, a role which is increasingly important given a dramatic 40% increase in the number of cases from 2008 to present. I am proud that Travis County CASA continues to make efforts to grow to keep pace with demand and continues to strive toward a goal that they will someday be able to provide a CASA advocate for every child. In a very strained system, CASA volunteers sometimes have more first-hand knowledge of what’s going on in a case than anyone else in court. When I appoint a CASA volunteer to their advocate role, I always do so in the legal role of “guardian ad litem”, which means that they are appointed as an advocate for the best interest of the child, a role which is supported in statute here in Texas. I believe that when Judges provide the CASA volunteer this statutory footing they can give them additional credibility and a greater stake in the case. I can think of several examples where I went into a case thinking it was going one direction and the advocacy of a CASA volunteer in court actually led me to change my mind and make a different decision. Because they are appointed in this statutory role, I also support the right of a CASA volunteer to set hearings when necessary to bring an issue to the Court’s attention. CASA volunteers tender written Court Reports to my chambers in advance of every hearing. I find these reports extremely helpful, sometimes even more so than the court reports tendered by the Department of Family and Protective Services.

While their role in the courtroom may be primary, I would be remiss if I did not also underscore the value of the partnership between the judiciary and the CASA program outside the courtroom. Since the designation of our court as a model court by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in 2008, the local CASA program has been a leading collaborative partner in the Travis County Model Court for Children and Families. They participate in our monthly executive committee meetings, bringing an important voice and perspective to the table on important issues. The local CASA program also contributes immensely to model court initiatives, such as our efforts at eliminating disproportionality and disparity. In 2010, Travis County CASA helped spearhead the expansion of a family finding initiative at the beginning of each CPS case, helping to find relatives to connect with children. The local CASA program has also been extremely active in promoting educational advocacy and has made a significant effort to train CASA volunteers to serve in the role of “surrogate parent” in cases in which a CPS child qualifies for special education services. Additionally, CASA volunteers have been instrumental partners on the “Drug Court” team, which involves an intensive out-of-court effort to provide wrap-around services to certain families whose drug issues brought them into the CPS system. The local CASA program has been a catalyst for numerous ideas to improve the lives of children, including an effort to provide music to foster children which has spun off from Travis County CASA under the non-profit banner of “Kids in a New Groove”.

Judges, as judicial leaders, you have a special ability to help inspire and motivate others. Whether your jurisdiction is large or small, I encourage you to reach out to your local CASA program, empower them to be the greatest advocates they can be for the children of your jurisdiction and don’t let your imagination be hemmed in by traditional thinking of what a CASA program “ought” to be. Rather, think about what the children in your jurisdiction need and then extend your hand and talk with your local CASA program about how you can work together to help make a difference for kids. You may be surprised to find that your local CASA program can flourish into an even more amazing resource for kids both in and out of the courtroom.

Editor's Note: Please see link for Judge Darlene Byrne's January 6, 2016 article "Texas Foster Care System Needs Help, Not Condemnation" published by the Texas Tribune and additional link to U. S. District Judge Janis Jack's ruling (PDF 1.7MB).

Author's Biography: Judge Darlene Byrne currently serves as President of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Judge Byrne has served as Judge of the 126th Judicial District Court in Travis County (Austin), Texas since 2001. Prior to serving on the bench, she practiced law for thirteen years in the areas of employment, commercial, and governmental entity litigation. A graduate of the University of Houston Law Center, Judge Byrne serves as Vice Chair to the Supreme Court of Texas’ Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families, as well as the past Chair of the Data Subcommittee for this Commission.

Judge Byrne is a member of the Travis County Juvenile Justice Board, a founding team member of the Travis County Family Drug Treatment Court, and a co-chair for the Austin Do The Write Thing Challenge. She is the recipient of the Government Service Award for 2005 presented by the Travis County Women Lawyers’ Association.

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