Northern Judicial Circuit Juvenile Court Judge Warren Caswell has stacks of papers on the living room floor in his Ila home. He has no office — not yet at least. And those papers, well, they represent the welfare of children around the five-county circuit.
He has a caseload of approximately 240.
“I look at all of them as one of my own,” said Caswell. “I can’t be there to tuck them into bed at night. But I worry about whether they’re being taken care of.”
Caswell is the Northern Judicial Circuit’s first full-time juvenile court judge. He served as a part-time judge, assisting Chris NeSmith, since 2009. The position was made full-time at the beginning of this year. And the five counties in the circuit — Madison, Franklin, Hart, Elbert and Oglethorpe — split the cost of Caswell’s services on a per capita basis.
The job deals with a wide range of children’s issues. If parents are potentially unfit to care for their children, it’s Caswell who makes the call. If a child breaks a law, it’s Caswell who must determine what happens to the child. If a child wants to officially be “emancipated” from their parents and live on their own, they can appeal to the judge. He deals with custody cases, traffic issues, even abortion matters.
“We do not see people on their best day,” said Caswell. “But as a lawyer, you learn really quick that nobody’s life stands up to a microscope. So you have to keep that in the back of your mind.”
Caswell said that his role is to be a team player in helping broken families and children find a better life.
A primary role is determining whether a child is safe in his or her home.
“I have always been interested in juvenile court, because I have always been interested in the rights of children,” he said. “I don’t like to see children abused. I think that’s safe to say about any adult. I take it particularly personally. I like to see children protected. I like to see children have a fair shot to grow up to be the best they can be. And that’s what I want to provide to all of our children in the juvenile court.”
With that in mind, Caswell will pull children from their parents if needed. He’ll also require parents to get rehabilitation treatment for drugs if he deems it necessary.
“Essentially can the child be safely maintained in the home?” asked Caswell. “So, when the DFCS (Department of Family and Children’s Services) calls up at 3 in morning and says judge we’re on scene, mom and dad are being arrested. Or, a mom has just given birth and the baby has tested positive for methamphetamines and is showing signs of withdrawal. That’s in our codes, if you have a child who has been exposed to narcotics prenatally and they’re showing signs of withdrawal after birth, then we are supposed to remove the children from the home and start the process of trying to rebuild that family. Sometimes they call up and say both parents are being arrested. This child has no place to sleep tonight.”
When such things happen, Caswell begins the process of determining what must happen to get the family in a better spot. He said Madison County has about 1.2 removals of children per month from their home and the average number of county kids in the care of social services in any given month is 27 — and 126 in the circuit.
Caswell much more is needed to help troubled local youth. When asked what’s on his wish list, it’s not an office, which he currently lacks. The Madison County commissioners have indicated that they plan to provide him office space soon.
“We need more rehab beds for our families,” said the judge. “I need tutoring for my children. I need mentors for my children. Those would be my top three wish list items.”
But he said there are a lot of good things going on despite the shortages. He notes the work of DFCS, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), foster parents, mental health workers, doctors and counselors — “all the people that go into putting a family back together that’s been torn asunder.”
“We have miracle workers at all of our DFCS offices, Madison County included,” he said. “My top three wish items are all services. We have a dearth of services in our circuit. This is no surprise to anybody, but despite that, our DFCS workers find rehabs; they find psychiatric treatment facilities. They find foster homes. They find group homes. They find places for these families — for these children to go and for parents to get the services they need. And they get them through.”
Caswell said that CASA volunteers are also performing wonderful work that makes a difference.
“They (CASA) were started (in 1977) with the idea that children weren’t a party to these cases,” said Caswell. “They (children) had no right to be there. They no right to speak, no right to have their voice heard. And the court was doing a bad job of explaining what was going on. So they would show up in court, and be told we’re going to send you this way and mommy this way, and maybe you’ll see her again and maybe you won’t. So CASA is designed to alleviate that problem. And they do a great job. They represent the child’s best interest.”
Caswell said CASA volunteers make a huge commitment to kids. They travel to see the children once a month, sometimes as far away as Ludowici in Long County, about a six-hour drive to a group home.
“These CASA volunteers mean everything to us,” said the judge. “We could not get our job done as well as we do without our CASA volunteers. There’s just no way. I just don’t see it. They’re the ones that come and tell me that the child is starting to falter in school. They are there. My CASA worker looks after five or six kids. So they get much more individualized attention. I can’t stress how much we appreciate them.”
Caswell was asked what CASA volunteers get from the experience.
“They get to literally change a life,” he said. “They are going to meet a child who has not had what most of our volunteers would consider to be a normal upbringing. This child is going to have been exposed to domestic violence or drugs or neglect. They’re going to meet children who at two and three years old were responsible for waking their parents up in the morning and getting their own breakfast. And they’re going to introduce these children to what it’s like to be a child. They’re going to get to watch them grow up and make friends and play and thrive.”
Caswell said every kid is just looking for someone who cares.
“These children haven’t had that person make a difference to them yet, and it’s what this provides,” said the judge. “For a lot of children in our system, that’s just what they want. Where’s the proof that someone cares?”
Want to help?
•To learn more about mentoring, call 706-338-3689.
•To learn more about CASA, call 706-886-1098.
•To report child abuse, call the DFCS CPS Central Intake Center at 1-855-422-4453
•To learn more about foster parenting, call 877-210-KIDS