While presiding over a virtual swearing-in ceremony for new CASA volunteer advocates, Judge Scott Gardner recently asked each trainee what drew them to the program. Most mentioned their personal or professional experiences in child welfare or a desire to give back. Judge Gardner’s response perfectly illustrates why he has been selected as Louisiana CASA Judge of the Year.
“You’re like me,” Judge Gardner told the volunteers for Youth Service Bureau CASA serving St. Tammany and Washington Parishes. “You don’t just do this work. You eat, sleep and live it.”
Louisiana CASA Judge of the Year is awarded annually to a judge who has advanced the best interest of children through support of the CASA model. Those who have watched Judge Gardner at work in the 22nd Judicial District are familiar with his intense commitment to achieving the best outcomes for children who have experienced abuse or neglect. With his nurturing tone, Judge Gardner invites every child in court to speak with him, personally. He puts them at ease by inviting them and their attorney to accompany him to the nearby kitchen for homemade cookies and kindness. And when it comes to understanding each child’s case as fully as possible, he is a big believer in YSB CASA, a program that trains volunteers to be a voice in court for children who have experienced abuse or neglect.
“It is almost tragic that I don’t have a CASA Volunteer Advocate for every child’s case,” Judge Gardner says. “A child who is served by a Volunteer Advocate has better life outcomes, because you have one human being who has dedicated his or her life to making sure that child has the best chance of success, visiting them one-on-one, visiting all the collaterals, caretakers and service providers.”
Oftentimes, Gardner adds, the CASA Volunteer Advocate’s written report to the court is more useful to him while sorting through a case than a child’s own words.
“A child will filter what they say in court for any number of reasons,” Gardner explains. “Maybe they are intimidated by the courtroom environment or because I am wearing a black robe or because their parents are there. But I know that that CASA Volunteer Advocate who gives his or her time at the McDonald’s or the PlayStation is getting the true picture of what is happening in that child’s life. There are times after reading a CASA report that I feel I have spent six months with a child.”
Sharon McLane, program director of YSB CASA, which nominated Gardner, notes he “never misses an opportunity to speak to our Volunteer Advocates or to increase awareness of our program. He often attends our in-service training and recruiting events and enthusiastically promotes our program throughout the community.”
Judge Gardner was elected to the bench in 2013 after 26 years as an Assistant District Attorney in the 22nd Judicial District. Prior to assuming responsibility for Juvenile Court, Judge Gardner read the Louisiana Children’s Code from cover to cover.
Judge Gardner presides over one of only seven Family Preservation Court programs in Louisiana. The goal of Family Preservation Court is to give parents quicker and longer access to treatment, allowing speedier and more informed decisions in CINC cases. He has also hosted in-service trainings about Family Preservation Court for YSB CASA staff and volunteers. In 2020, with the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, Judge Gardner presided over what is believed to be the first “virtual adoption” and has virtually sworn in several classes of Volunteer Advocates. Judge Gardner was a key collaborator when YSB CASA installed a sensory-respectful room in Covington’s St. Tammany Parish Justice Center which offers children a safe and calming place to await court. The room’s grand opening was on National Adoption Day, another event Judge Gardner strongly promotes throughout the community.
Judge Gardner is also active with the Family Justice Initiative and the Louisiana Children’s Trust Fund, which work to support children and families.
All judges in Louisiana are eligible for the Louisiana CASA Judge of the Year Award. Local CASA programs nominate judges from around the state and Louisiana CASA board members make the final selection. Each year, Louisiana CASA holds an annual banquet to celebrate CASA heroes statewide. Due to Covid-19, 2020 winners will be recognized at the 2021 banquet.
ABOUT Youth Service Bureau CASA: YSB CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates) is a program that trains and supervises community volunteers from all walks of life to be a voice in court for children who have experienced abuse or neglect, helping judges find them safe and permanent homes.