In celebration of the Honorable Judge Dennis Keough’s service to a generation of abused and neglected children, we wanted to pay tribute to a remarkable bench officer who has dedicated 25 years of his judicial career to the field of juvenile justice. Judge Keough has spent many years presiding over difficult matters in Dependency Court with great care and compassion, and he appreciates the dedication of our Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteers.
In anticipation of his departure, CASA sat down with Judge Keough to learn more about the man who has been a longstanding fixture at Lamoreaux Justice Center, presiding in Department L23. He began our talk by expressing his deep gratitude for the CASA OC volunteer advocates. He acknowledged the immense impact an advocate has on a child and their future, and how their connection with the child will be something that will ripple throughout their life and serve as the healthy foundation for the future connections they make.
“The life affirming presence of a CASA, the beat of a caring heart has the unique capacity to resonate with, and fill the needs of a child’s heart. The rhythm of such resonance will resound all the days of a child’s life like a wave upon the sea. And like a wave upon the sea, it will break with a buoyancy that never fails as it washes upon tomorrow’s shore to lift the child’s life each day anew. Children’s lives are richer and fuller because of CASA, our world is a better place because of CASA, and CASA gives eloquent expression to the best of our humanity. The plaintive cry of a recurring question asks, where are good people in difficult and challenging times? While I don’t know where all of them are, I know for certain that I see a great number of them in courtrooms speaking for children as CASAs,” shared Judge Keough.
Judge Keough’s career was inspired by mentor-figures who touched his own life. His older brothers encouraged him to pursue higher education in the humanities and law. Keough’s skills and reputation as a trial lawyer led to his appointment to a seat on Nebraska’s 5th Judicial District as an Associate County Judge. Serving as a judge in the 6 counties of Nebraska’s 5th District, Keough was an integral part of the lives of the people and the communities he served. He saw the people he was serving as individuals, friends, and neighbors who were all a part of the same community, and therefore, a part of each other’s lives. Keough returned to California in 1981 and accepted a position as an Assistant District Attorney for Santa Cruz County. To demonstrate his authentic interest in the individuals who appeared before him in his courtroom, he would often engage them in off-the-record conversation; he would challenge them to look within themselves and encourage them to become their best selves. He would ask a youth to promise more to themselves than anyone else, that because others have seen boundless possibilities for their future, had recognized the profound value and dignity of their life. That they would not sell themselves short, or betray their own future, but would give it their best shot to excel and “become the person dreamt of in their fondest dreams.”
Though serving youth is hard work worth doing, there have been difficult and challenging times. Keough compared his method to overcome these adversities to mining for gold: doing all of the work that is required in order to find the gem inside every child.
“Try your hardest, give a child a sense of their own self-worth and their value as a human being, as they are kids who are entitled to warmth, nourishment, and love. And you see this when children talk about their CASAs. This blossom they are experiencing for the first (time) in their lives is that sense of an emotional connection. And it’s watching that gem, and seeing that life you touch, grow.”
Keough shared that finding this gem requires a lot of resilience and comes with constant unexpected lessons to learn from, even after thirty-five years of practicing juvenile court. Keough shared an example of the importance of the cases that can and do come before a Juvenile Court and the problems faced by children and families, a case that we will call Joey’s case. Joey was a seven-year-old little boy, going on 35, a very tough, afraid, and fragile little boy.
“I took off my robe and I sat beside him on the chair and asked ‘how old are you?’ and he replied, ‘seven.’ And then I asked ‘what’s wrong?’ and he just started crying. And it still gets me to this day” Keough continued with his voice breaking. Joey’s older brother had run away from a home placement, had been living on the streets, and there were gang members trying to find him because they wanted him dead. It was overwhelming for Judge Keough to see a child of seven be burdened with this type of conflict. In an attempt to soothe Joey, Keough said, “I can’t promise you that if you tell me where he is, that we won’t go get him, but there are worse things that can happen to your brother than if comes back into the courtroom and talks with me, and we find him a home far away from people who want to hurt him.” And soon after, they were able to get Jesse’s brother off the streets, to a new home, and now, years later, he has a life for himself and a family of his own. Joey was one of the many kids who absorb life’s challenges and traumas like a sponge, and when they do so, it provokes a need in Keough to give more. This is just one instance where the ability to trust each other and reach out to kids impacted him in a way that is hard to put into words but could be felt on a fundamental level.
He continued to share that CASA has done this really well. That our advocates have done the work to tease out the humanity within the child and their story, and through this, the two hearts develop a common language with one another. And their connections made with the child help him serve them better in the courtroom and set them up for a promising future.
How a CASA, or really anyone who wants to make a difference in a child’s life, can take comfort in knowing their work matters and is making a difference, is to trust that they are guides in the adventure of a child’s life. It takes “tenacity, wisdom, hope, and love” to show up and be there for the child, especially when the child is reluctant or distant due to their trauma. Keough shared it is bittersweet to know a person who extends their hand may never see the fruit of their labor, but the seed will blossom and they need to trust that they will have made a difference. “One child at a time, we will change the world, and they will succeed.”