David W. Soukup was a judge in Seattle when he was faced with an unnerving decision. A 3-year-old girl had been taken to a city hospital with injuries that a doctor found consistent with abuse. In court, the mother insisted her daughter had merely fallen off a swing — and anyway, she said, her boyfriend had moved out and wasn’t coming back.
Judge Soukup was torn over whether to remove the child from the only family she had known. If he sent her to foster care with strangers, would she feel abandoned and traumatized? If he returned her to her mother, would she be in physical danger?
He had decided similar cases before, and they had kept him awake at night. “It was terrifying to me to make decisions about kids when I didn’t have anybody there that was only advocating for the child,” he said in a 2018 interview.
In that moment came a flash of inspiration: Why not recruit community volunteers to represent a child’s best interests in hearings about guardianship?
In 1976, Judge Soukup founded what became Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, now a prominent national organization, active in 49 states and Washington, D.C., which represents the interests in court of nearly 250,000 abused or neglected children, most of them in foster care.
Judge Soukup died on Dec. 16 at a hospital in Silverdale, Wash., near his home in the Seattle area, his son Dan said. He was 90.
CASA volunteers number more than 97,000 nationally and are nearly ubiquitous in many juvenile court systems. The program has won the praise of Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, and has received more than $300 million in grants from the Justice Department since 1994.
In October, during a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing into the failures of Georgia’s foster care system, a teenager named Mon’a Houston testified about being neglected and overmedicated while she cycled through group homes until she was assigned a CASA volunteer.
“Ms. Page was the first adult who listened to me,” Ms. Houston said, adding that her advocate “would regularly fight” with the state child welfare agency “to get me what I needed.”
Such endorsements suggest why Judge Soukup’s idea caught on. Recalling the birth of the program, he said in the 2018 interview that he had asked his bailiff to call six or seven people in the community who might be interested in meeting over a brown-bag lunch to discuss his notion.
“When I walked in the lunchroom, there were 50 people there,” he said. “And I said, ‘This is going to work.’”
In the United States, some 600,000 children were victims of abuse or neglect in 2021, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, and an estimated 1,820 died from maltreatment. Rates of child abuse and neglect are five times as high in poor families.
After Judge Soukup’s program began in Seattle in 1977, growth came rapidly. By 1982, there were 54 state and local CASA programs. Today there are 939, coordinated by the National CASA/GAL Association for Children, with offices in Seattle, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
After training, volunteers — many of whom are retirees — are appointed by judges; unlike social workers or lawyers, who typically juggle a heavy caseload, a CASA advocate usually works with just a few children, following them closely until they find a permanent home.
“Judges need CASA volunteers in their courts, and they really need them to be a party to the action, because there’s no one else in that courtroom whose only function is to address the child’s needs. Everyone else has some other role,” Judge Soukup said in 2018.
Independent research has shown that children assigned a CASA advocate have better outcomes than children who are not. The Inspector General’s office of the Justice Department reported in 2007 that children assigned CASA advocates received more court-ordered services and were more likely to end up in a permanent home.
Other research, however, has contradicted some of these findings. A 2016 article in The City University of New York Law Review argued that CASA embodied structural racism because most of its volunteers were middle-class white women who held undue influence over clients, most of whom were poor Black and Native American children. CASA says it follows “the guiding principle that children grow and develop best with their family of origin, if that can be safely achieved.”
Last year, the Justice Department placed a temporary freeze on grants to CASA because of problems it identified in the organization’s practices, as reported by The Imprint, a news site that covers child welfare and juvenile justice issues. Sally Wilson Erny, the deputy chief executive of CASA, said in an email that the group has “resolved all of the recommendations” of the Justice Department and that “we are now moving forward.”
David Wilson Soukup was born on Dec. 15, 1933, in Elmhurst, Ill. His father, Phillip Soukup Jr., owned a chain of hardware stores, and his mother, Ruth (Wilson) Soukup, was an elementary-school teacher.
After graduating from Iowa State University, Mr. Soukup enlisted in the Army and served at Fort Lewis in Washington State. He married Anne Mathews, a former office worker, in 1959 and settled with her in the Seattle area. They had seven children.
After he received a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1961, he was hired as a prosecutor in King County, Wash., which includes Seattle. In the 1960s, he was appointed a judge of the Seattle Municipal Court and later of the King County Superior Court. He remained on the bench until 1983, when he stepped down to practice arbitration and mediation law.
His first marriage ended in divorce in 1995. Soon after, he married Beth Waid, who had been the executive director of the national CASA network until 1994.
After founding the organization, Judge Soukup remained an active board member, meeting political figures to promote its mission and working to expand the network. In 2017, after he addressed CASA’s national conference in Seattle, hundreds of volunteer advocates from around the country lined up for a photograph with him.
Judge Soukup’s wife survives him, as does a stepdaughter, Caitlin Waid; six children from his first marriage, Daniel, David, Ed, Peter, Jack and Mary-Pat Soukup; and a brother, Robert Soukup.
Later in life, after retiring from the law, Judge Soukup became a CASA volunteer himself, representing children. “It was an extraordinary experience,” he said. “Both the hardest and the best thing I’ve ever done.”