Judicial Leadership and CASA/GAL Programs

Judge Leonard EdwardsJudge Leonard J. Edwards (ret.)
Past President, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

Judge leadership is critical in the creation, growth, and success of a CASA/GAL program. Everyone knows the value of a CASA program. The CASA volunteer provides support for the child, a positive relationship at a difficult time in the child’s life, and important information for the judge. Yet to get started a CASA program needs a supportive judge. There may be some persons or groups who will oppose the creation of a CASA program. These persons may believe a CASA program is unnecessary or duplicative. In my case, it was the social service agency who opposed my proposal to start a program. They met with me and tried to talk me out of starting the program stating that volunteers would only get in the way of social workers. The next day in the local newspaper they aired their complaints and said “It’s Judge Edwards baby.” I stuck with my goal and made certain that the program was launched. Since then the program has grown and grown and thousands of children have benefitted. Ironically, the leading source of referrals today is the social service agency. And everyone in our community realizes the importance of CASA volunteers to the well-being of children appearing before the juvenile dependency court.

Creation of a CASA program is only the beginning. Judges need to work with the program to strengthen its capacity and make it more useful to the court and effective for children appearing before the court. Judges can support the growth of a CASA program in many ways. They can speak at local service organizations, colleges and universities, and other groups in the community. They can ethically ask these people to consider becoming CASA volunteers. That is what Judge David Soukup did in 1977 when he created the first CASA program and what many other judges have been doing for years. They can disseminate information including brochures and videos when they make these appearances. There are numerous videos available that have been made by National CASA and by individual programs around the country. I have found the most effective outreach is simply to tell the community that the court and the children need their help – their participation as a volunteer – and to ask for their help.

Judges also play an important role in the success of a CASA program. Judges can talk to the CASA volunteers and show their appreciation for the long hours and advocacy that the volunteers provide to the court. Judges can appear at special volunteer events such as the swearing-in ceremony or a graduation. They can write editorials about the CASA program, encouraging citizens to become volunteers. They can preside over meetings that bring together representatives from attorney offices, the social service agency, service providers, and CASA leaders and administrators. At these meetings those present can address issues and problems that have arisen, and the judge can make certain that all of those present have a good working relationship with the CASA program.

In these meetings Judges should treat the CASA program as an equal partner with every other person/group represented in the room. In that regard I always wanted to impress everyone with the importance of CASA to the work of the court. One issue that frequently arose in my court was CASA volunteer access to otherwise confidential information such as court files. I had to make a special court order permitting CASA volunteers to read the files. The order contained a proviso that the information could only be used in court proceedings and could not be further disseminated. Without court records, the CASA volunteer is at a disadvantage in understanding the legal proceedings.

Judges know that the children in court value CASA volunteers more than anyone else they encounter in the child welfare system. In a California study dependent children were asked “Who do you most trust in the juvenile dependency court?” The answer was their CASA volunteer. Why did they give this answer? One reason was that they knew that the CASA volunteer was the only unpaid person in the court system. Another reason is that they knew that the CASA volunteer only had one case – theirs.

In that same study these same children were asked: “Who is the most effective person for you in the court system?” Again the youth answered the CASA volunteer! They based this on their experience and the fact that the CASA volunteer was the most accessible person to them and the most responsive.

There is no question that children in a juvenile court benefit significantly when there is a vibrant CASA/GAL program. It just makes good sense for the judge to take a leadership role in the creation, growth and success of a CASA program. After all, the program will provide information to the judge, support for the child, and improve outcomes for the children. No court should be without a CASA program.

*Editor’s Note: For additional information see “CASA Programs and Judicial Ethics” by Judge Leonard Edwards (ret.) and Judge Thomas Hornsby (ret.), July 2013 issue of The Judges’ Page.


Author Biography: Judge Edwards is Consultant Mentor Judge at the Center for Families, Children & the Courts, Operations & Programs Division of the Judicial Council of California. Judge Edwards served for 26 years as a Superior Court Judge in Santa Clara County, CA retiring in 2006. He sat as a domestic relations judge and as a juvenile court judge. Judge Edwards is a past National CASA Judge of the Year and served as President of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in 2002-2003. Judge Edwards has taught at the University of Santa Clara Law School, Stanford Law School, and the California Judicial College. He has provided judicial trainings in over 47 states and 11 foreign countries. Judge Edwards has written widely including books entitled The Role of the Juvenile Court Judge: Practice and Ethics and Reasonable Efforts: A Judicial Perspective. Judge Edwards was the recipient of the 2004 William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence. Many of his articles and videos can be seen on his website: www.judgeleonardedwards.com    


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