2006.05.23: May 23, 2006: Headlines: COS - Malaysia: Law: Jurisprudence: Mercury News: Santa Clara County Judge Len Edwards (RPCV Malaysia) retires

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Malaysia: Peace Corps Malaysia : The Peace Corps in Malaysia: 2006.05.23: May 23, 2006: Headlines: COS - Malaysia: Law: Jurisprudence: Mercury News: Santa Clara County Judge Len Edwards (RPCV Malaysia) retires

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Santa Clara County Judge Len Edwards (RPCV Malaysia) retires

Santa Clara County Judge Len Edwards (RPCV Malaysia) retires

For 21 years, the energetic Edwards has presided over Santa Clara County's Juvenile Dependency Court, one of the most gut-wrenching duties in the legal universe. On the second floor of a boxy courthouse on the edge of downtown San Jose, Edwards, 65, has pulled families back from the abyss and given troubled moms and dads another chance to prove they can be good parents. If they don't, he terminates their parental rights. Dependency court was a calling; helping solve society's problems is his nature. In the summer of 1964, when he was in his early 20s, he joined the civil rights movement in Mississippi, registering black voters. When he finished law school, he joined the Peace Corps in Malaysia.

Santa Clara County Judge Len Edwards (RPCV Malaysia) retires

FAMILY JUDGE'S LEGACY OF LOVE
By Julia Prodis Sulek
Mercury News

Caption: Judge Len Edwards looks at a scrapbook, with among others, from left, Mabel Chan, Priscilla Merek and Sylvia Roque at his retirement celebration in the San Jose Athletic Club in San Jose. Photo: Patrick Tehan / Mercury News

As word spread that Santa Clara County Judge Len Edwards was retiring this month, his courtroom became a mecca of sorts.

Judges from across the country crammed into the back of his tiny courtroom to get one last chance to see Edwards in action. Drug-addicted fathers and neglectful mothers -- some in shackles, some in tears -- came to thank him.

Some mothers even wrote him thank-you notes.

``You have been the only male role model in my life for a very long time,'' Gloria Chavez wrote neatly on a light-blue, store-bought card. ``Thank you for believing in me and giving me a second chance on life.''

For 21 years, the energetic Edwards has presided over Santa Clara County's Juvenile Dependency Court, one of the most gut-wrenching duties in the legal universe. On the second floor of a boxy courthouse on the edge of downtown San Jose, Edwards, 65, has pulled families back from the abyss and given troubled moms and dads another chance to prove they can be good parents. If they don't, he terminates their parental rights.

``He took a system that was so primitive out of the Dark Ages and made it a model program,'' said Howard Seigel, a retired public defender.

Forged by a broken family as a boy, and by tragedy as a parent, Edwards has created a court program to strengthen families that has become a national model.

Edwards has been called a pioneer, a giant, a revolutionary. He has lectured in 43 states and eight foreign countries, won countless awards, written reams of journal articles and drafted state child welfare laws. His court emphasizes collaboration among parents, social workers, child advocates, lawyers and rehab agencies.

In his courtroom decorated with unframed posters of bear cubs and harp seals, all the players in a case sit around a ring of tables and find solutions for damaged families to repair themselves, make their homes safe and regain custody of their children.

It all happens in an industrial gray building that has the look and feel of a Greyhound bus station. Anxious parents huddle in waiting rooms. Court clerks hustle through. Babies cry.

Juvenile Dependency Court is a place most young judges duck through as fast as they can on their way up to more prestigious posts.

With his widespread reputation, Edwards could have easily done that. And as the son of former San Jose Democratic Congressman Don Edwards, now in his 90s, he had the name recognition and pedigree for political office.

But dependency court was a calling; helping solve society's problems is his nature. In the summer of 1964, when he was in his early 20s, he joined the civil rights movement in Mississippi, registering black voters. When he finished law school, he joined the Peace Corps in Malaysia.

``He has genius and talent, but he stayed here in this little court because of his commitment to children and families,'' said Brendan Cunning, a juvenile dependency court mediator who has worked with Edwards for 13 years. ``He's a good and true man, a great human being.''

Compassionate view

Inside this bleak building it's easy to feel the worst about humanity. Here are the men who beat their wives in front of their children, the mothers who side with their boyfriends instead of their molested daughters, the parents who take drugs and leave their children unattended to get more.

Most of these parents had horrific childhoods themselves, Edwards said. About 70 percent of the mothers were abused as children, either beaten or molested themselves, or suffer from mental illness. Many can't comprehend what it means to be a good parent. They've had no role models.

While there are social critics of family reunification, Edwards' inclusive strategy and the dignified way he treats even the most broken parents make him a beacon in the world of family law.

``Good morning!'' he booms smiling at all who enter Department 67. ``How are you?''

Each time, he looks the parent straight in the eye, holding his gaze until they look back.

Edwards understands the deep pain and loss of family, the intimidation of a courtroom. At 10, he endured a bitter custody battle.

``When I got to family court, in 1981, and the first custody case came in, that was me,'' said Edwards, who has his dad's broad smile and square jaw. ``I immediately dedicated myself to kids having an easier time in divorce. I realized that the adversarial process wasn't even thinking about kids. I became an advocate for mediation.''

He also knows first-hand that ``the greatest sadness of all is losing a child.'' Edwards and his wife, Inger Sagatun-Edwards, lost a teenage son in a 1996 car crash.

In Edwards' courtroom, parents face the loss of their kids, to foster care or adoption. Fear, Edwards knows, is a powerful motivator.

``I need to see my daughter to keep me going,'' a tentative young mother told the judge as she sat at the ring of tables.

She had red-tinted hair, a criminal record and a drug problem. The father was in jail. Her daughter had been taken away.

When Edwards suggested drug programs, she nodded her head vigorously.

``I like your attitude. You want to change,'' the judge said.

``Oh, yes,'' she said. ``My daughter and I deserve each other. We're going to get out of town away from my family, away from my friends, and be happy.''

But first, Edwards told her, ``you have a lot of work to do.'' He gave her a handful of bus tokens for the week of counseling appointments.

``The best place for the child is with the parents,'' Edwards said in a recent interview in his chambers. ``There's something magical about having the same DNA as someone.''

Reunification over termination

While the most horrific cases of children suffering more abuse when returned home make headlines, Edwards said, ``the majority of cases are not that awful. They're bad, but can be rehabilitated.''

His approach has had remarkable success. He and the other two judicial officers in the Terraine Street courthouse return 80 to 90 percent of children to family members. They terminate parental rights of the rest, about 240 cases a year. The children are usually adopted or placed with legal guardians.

About once a year, a failed case comes back. One did on Edwards' last day on the bench earlier this month. Two parents had relapsed and their children had to watch, again, as their father beat their mother.

``It was devastating,'' Edwards said. ``You have second thoughts about a lot of decisions, but if I had overwhelming second thoughts, I wouldn't be able to get the job done.''

Every case that comes into his court, he says, ``involves a prediction of the future.'' And most of the time, he says, his predictions are right.

Gloria Chavez, who sent Edwards the blue notecard first sat before the judge when she and her newborn tested positive for drugs. She had received no prenatal care and was living in an RV. ``I wasn't a mother,'' she said. ``I felt like I wasn't even a person.''

Now, she said, ``I have five years clean. My life has totally turned around. It's because of all the support I've gotten, and especially Judge Edwards. He never made me feel I was a bad mother. He supported me through the whole thing. I feel honored I was part of that courtroom.''

Chavez, now 47, now works as a ``mentor mom,'' inspiring other mothers to follow her path.

In Edwards' courtroom recently, the gratitude of parents -- some in jail jumpsuits -- has been pouring in.

``Before, I couldn't face anything,'' one mother told Edwards. Then, in a near whisper, she added, ``I hear you're leaving.''

``I am,'' he said, ``but I'll leave you in good hands.''

On June 1, he becomes a consultant for the state judicial system, spreading his innovations across California's 58 counties.

In his old courtroom, the unframed posters still hang on the wall. The tables are still in a ring. But there's a new judge, Katherine Lucero, in his place.

Like Edwards, she shines a broad smile, and with every person who enters, she looks them straight in the eye.
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at jsulek@mercurynews.com or (408) 278-3409.





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Story Source: Mercury News

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