In the fourth of a series, read about Santa Clara County’s first out lesbian judge, Judge Shawna Schwarz.
Although Judge Shawna Schwarz made history as the first out lesbian judge in Santa Clara County in 2006, her LGBTQ+ identity has been fairly irrelevant in her legal career. “The bench has been very welcoming,” she said. The only time her identity really comes into play is when people confuse her for fellow judges Julie Emede and Jacqueline Arroyo (both lesbians), even though the three look nothing alike.
“For example, once Judge Emede got a thank-you note from one of our colleagues for something that I did,” Schwarz stated. The three laugh about the mixups and tease their colleagues rather than take offense.
Not long after coming out at age 27, Schwarz met her partner of 31 years, Sandy Berry, who works in commercial real estate. As was the case with some same-sex couples, the two got married at the last hours of November 4, 2008, the day Proposition 8 passed and restricted marriage to opposite-sex couples. Worried the window to get married would close, earlier in the day they had arranged to have a judge friend officiate their wedding that evening. As they and their friends stood in front of the television to watch the election results, which included the victory of Barack Obama, they said their “I do’s.” Later, the brides took over a neighbor’s election party to celebrate their union.
Learning about Judge Schwarz’s childhood, one would think she was always on a path to working with children. Born in Cleveland, Ohio to a military family, Schwarz was the second of four daughters. Her two younger sisters were originally her cousins but were adopted into the family after her mother’s twin sister lost her life to domestic violence. In the eighth grade, Schwarz wrote that she wanted to be either a pediatrician, basketball player, or child psychologist.
When the Stanford graduate got to law school at Santa Clara University, she discovered her real calling through the process of elimination. “I took a property class and I thought, nope, that’s not for me. I took a contracts class and I thought, well, I’m not going be doing that. Then I took Children and the Law and I thought, oh my gosh, I could totally do this. This is what lights my fire; this is what I want to do.”
The instructor for the law class ran the Legal Advocates for Children and Youth (LACY) program, where Schwarz subsequently landed an internship and later a job upon graduation. She spent seven years as the directing attorney at LACY before applying to be a commissioner for the superior court in juvenile dependency in December 2001. The county superior court appoints a small number of commissioners, who have all the same responsibilities and authority of a judge except for the title.
After four years, the presiding judge of the dependency court, Len Edwards, encouraged her to apply for a judgeship, which she did. Subsequently, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed her in May 2006. “My nephews always wanted to know, did I actually meet the Terminator?” she laughed. “I did not. He had his appointment secretary take care of that sort of thing.”
In Schwarz’s daily work as a juvenile dependency court judge, she interacts with LGBTQ+ youth in the foster care system. (In California, juveniles go through a dependency court separate from the adult court.) She has observed that sexual orientation isn’t the big deal it used to be; now, gender identity is front and center. “I’ve seen a real increase in the number of our transgender youth. Before every hearing, I will make sure to ask the lawyer which pronouns to use. The lawyers will let me know, and I will make a note so that I can be correct with the kid. If I make a mistake, I apologize.”
Schwarz has seen how fluid young people are these days. “They’re not going to be offended if I say to a boy, do you have a boyfriend? Or ask a girl if she has a girlfriend. I’ve seen a real increase in the number of our transgender youth. I don’t know if that’s because there are more of them or because they’re more comfortable identifying that way.”
Family rejection is one of the main factors leading to homelessness for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth, but in Santa Clara County, that isn’t the primary reason LGBTQ+ youth end up in foster care. Schwarz believes more often than not, parents lose custody due to substance abuse, mental illness, or domestic violence.
As far as Schwarz knows, once in a foster placement, queer youth rarely encounter a lack of acceptance. “To be fair, it’s entirely possible that some foster placements fail because of homophobia or transphobia. I may not know. I only know what’s in the court report in front of me.”
Schwarz feels immensely privileged to be able to work in dependency court, even though the system is often maligned. “We take kids away, we terminate parental rights, and that doesn’t make us very popular, but the people who work in this system, they really want to help families and kids. The attorneys who work here aren’t making a lot of money; they’re doing it because it’s a calling and they’re passionate about it.”
In Santa Clara County, providing foster homes for young people is especially challenging. Housing prices often keep local foster youth from remaining in stable placements with access to top-tier county services. “We don’t have enough foster homes or we have situations where we have relatives who would like to take the kids in, but they don’t have room in their houses.”
For those compelled to step up, Schwarz recommends working with Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, which is run by her queer colleague Fred Ferrer. “If you can’t be a foster parent, be a court-appointed special advocate. You’ve heard the expression: Not everybody can be a foster parent, but everybody can help a foster child. It is so true.”
Schwarz believes that some people who work in the field of juvenile dependency have a family situation that led them there. She confided that she has a relative with a mental health issue, and feels she has a deeper understanding of mental health issues from having soembody who’s been impacted by that. “When I’m in court talking to kids whose parents have mental health issues, I feel like I can connect with them and understand some of what they’ve been going through,” she said.
Schwarz feels fortunate to work in Santa Clara County. She does a lot of teaching throughout the state and often hears from other judges how awesome the court is here. She gives much credit to Judge Edwards, who was a leader in the field of dependency law. She also feels lucky to have worked with Judge Katherine Lucero, who recently was appointed by Governor Newsom to be Director of Youth and Community Restoration at the California Health and Human Services Agency.
At the end of talking about her work in the courtroom, Schwarz wanted to be sure to add that the Social Service Agency in Santa Clara County is one of the best in the state. “We have better services here than most other counties,” she said. “Although we are far from perfect, our Department is always striving to do a better job. But even with good services, it’s better for the kids long term if we can keep them at home or keep them with their relatives.”