A sit down with Lafayette County Youth Court Judge, David Bell
While many will agree that Oxford, Mississippi is an exceptional place, there is a reason that holds up this idea that most do not know about. We sat down with Judge David Bell, who presides over the youth court, to discuss how lucky Oxford and Lafayette County are to have CASA and how the organization benefits our local youth court.
Judge Bell shared a bit of the background of CASA to better demonstrate the influence the organization has had here in Oxford. “In 1977, a judge in Seattle, Washington started the program. His logic was that he was making crucial decisions involving the lives of children with insufficient information. The staff of the government is too thin and does not have enough information to make a decision that is crucial to the lives of parents and children. This is why the judge began CASA,” says Bell.
He further explained how CASA’s origins have spread to impact him and our community in Lafayette County. “My mandate is to do what is within the best interest of the child and the law presumes that what’s in the best interest of the child, is having the child and parent together,” says Bell, “The role of CASA is to more fully develop information about the situation with the parent and child.”
While there is still information provided in cases involving child custody by Child Protection Services and the Guardian Ad Litem, a CASA volunteer advocate provides further insight into the child and parent relationship. The significance of a CASA volunteer advocate in the youth court goes far beyond their presence in the courtroom. Bell says, “CASA helps provide information to the court that's relevant to the parent and child relationship. CASA also can provide resources and services that would not otherwise be available. For example, it can be as simple as assisting with visitation, or in some cases, the resources for someone to get in drug rehab that wouldn’t otherwise be getting it.”
The main topic that we discussed, was one of the main differences that CASA makes in the youth court. As opposed to other organizations that aid the families and children who go through custody cases in Chancery Court, a CASA volunteer advocate is only working with one to two cases at a time. They will not receive another until the one they are currently working with is completed or is wrapping up. This allows for the volunteer advocate to be completely dedicated to one situation.
“You have a dedicated, trained person as a CASA worker, who is a volunteer so you know how important this is to them,” says Bell. “This is their service; a huge service. It's not just casual information I am getting. It is from a trained and experienced volunteer who knows what to look for and what to report on. They know what's important to me, and they know that what I want at every turn is to be on track for reunification of the child and parent.”
This extra information that a CASA volunteer advocate collects can make all the difference for a family going through the youth court. CASA workers go the extra mile when they are involved with a case to ensure the best interests of the child is seen through, by doing everything they can to encourage families and surrounding influences realize the same goal.
Although CASA’s main goal is seeking what is in the best interest of the child, Judge Bell mentions how important they are to parents as well. “With CASA being here, one of the biggest differences they make is with the parents. When they are in the desperate situation of having their child taken from them and trying to get them back, there is a dedicated and caring person that offers a beacon of possibility that just does not exist without CASA,” says Bell. “Here's a person they can call, here's a person who cares, here's a person who is working to help them and wanting them to succeed. Not working for the state not working for any organization, not an employee of anyone. Just a volunteer trying to help them.”
Judge Bell has come to rely on CASA and what they provide for the courts during their short time being in Oxford. CASA of Lafayette County is only getting bigger, and their lasting influence will only grow from here.
“It's been less than a year now but I'm already getting to the point of wondering how did I do it before CASA, and I did it much less effectively I think. People would ask what's the hardest part of your job and, like the judge in Seattle would say, I would answer I'm making crucial decisions regarding the lives of children with incomplete information. I don't know enough for it to not be a guessing game, and that's not what you want,” says Bell.
Judge Bell quoted a song called Sunday Morning Coming Down, written by Kris Kristofferson and made famous by Johnny Cash, saying, "I fumble through my closet for my clothes and I find my cleanest dirty shirt," and sometimes I would tell people that's the way I feel. I’m looking for my least bad option- my cleanest dirty shirt. It’s not what you want, but unfortunately, that's life I guess. Having that CASA worker I think is something of hope and progress for some parents that get them over the hump to where they need to be to get back on track.”