CROWN POINT | The loss to the Lake County CASA program was the judiciary's win, Lake Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth Bonventura says.
The commitment and experience of the program's longtime director, Elizabeth Gail Tegarden, made her the judge's "only" consideration when it came to replacing another juvenile court veteran, John Sedia.
Tegarden did not seek the position. Rather, Bonaventura sought her.
"We deal with underdogs in this court, children with no real voice," Bonaventura said. "Often Gail is the voice for these children. How can I not want her to sit in judgment and help people navigate through this maze we call the criminal justice system? We all turn to her."
Tegarden, 58, of Gary, says she has been in and out of juvenile court since obtaining her law degree 31 years ago, first by representing indigent clients in cases involving Children in Need of Services.
A graduate of Boston University and Valparaiso University School of Law, Tegarden also served as a public defender in juvenile court before accepting the CASA directorship in 1998.
The Lake County Court Appointed Special Advocate Program is the second-largest in the state. The volunteers recruited and trained through the program represent children found to have been abused or neglected.
Tegarden spent 20 years as a professor at the VU School of Law directing the Juvenile Justice Clinic. In addition, Tegarden has written more than 100 appellate briefs on the topic of abuse and neglect.
"She's a perfect fit," said Bonaventura, who is not alone in singing her praises.
"She's one of the most competent attorneys I've ever known in terms of dealing with children. She's been the moving force in the CASA program. She and Bona pretty well started it and she has maintained it. I can't say enough about her," said Sedia, her predecessor in the post.
Tegarden understands the difficultly of the job.
"What always amazes me is how relationships can break down to where there is so much acrimony and hard feelings and how people can't understand the impact on the child," she said. "Although mother loves the child and father loves the child, they just can't get to that separate peace where they can deal together in the best interest of the child."
Despite her experience, it can be perplexing.
"Even though I've been doing this in one form or another for a long time, that continues to astonish me," she said.
In her new role, next to juvenile detention hearings, Tegarden spends her time on paternity cases, handling some 6,000 open cases of her own out of a total 24,000 in the county.
Tegarden agrees with Sedia there has been a significant cultural shift in paternity court.
"To think of paternity court as just a court where we're dealing with teenagers who've made mistakes isn't what it is, anymore," she said.
Tegarden says she sees before her doctors, attorneys and millwrights, the whole range of society.
"The analogy would be to a divorce, the same child custody, child support and visitation issues," she said. "The same issues but property division and the same heartbreaking stories."
Tegarden says there are lots of stories with happy endings.
"I have one every day or two," she said.
Others are grievous. Some children are horribly exploited, she said.
"But our system moves in and does what needs to be done and is good at finding homes for them," she said.