From Commercial Litigator to CASA CEO

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From Commercial Litigator to CASA CEOMy Dallas Story

Today you may know Kathleen LaValle as the CEO of Dallas CASA. This July marks her ten-year anniversary … but her path there was not a straight one.

“Prior to becoming the CEO, I was a practicing attorney,” said LaValle. “I focused on commercial litigation and regulatory disputes, primarily in the telecommunications and electric power sectors. When I accepted the role of CEO, a dear friend suggested I had fallen and hit my head and asked what I would do when I woke up?”

LaValle understood the confusion and agreed that her decision to move from a commercial law practice to nonprofit management wasn’t a pivot, so much as a leap.

CASA – or court-appointed special advocates – was created in 1977 by a Seattle superior court judge who was concerned about a decision-making process that impacted the lives of abused and neglected children but wasn’t always informed by complete information. In 1980, Dallas CASA was established as one of three national pilot programs, and today it is the largest of more than 900 independent CASA programs.

The immediate priority of CASA advocates, or volunteers, is to find safe, permanent homes for children in need. Over time, the goal is to break the cycle of abuse and neglect.

While this work bears no similarity to her career as a lawyer, it was a perfect fit with an issue that was close to her heart. She had been serving on the Dallas CASA board for several years when the chief executive role opened up.

She recalls talking through the situation with her husband – a clinical psychologist.

“We would take our goldendoodle – Bailey – on walks and my husband helped me process what I was experiencing – and the decision I would eventually come around to.”

She said her husband told her if the CEO role was something she really wanted, to go for it. And her children – in their twenties when this opportunity presented itself – and both adopted — were equally supportive. In fact, the older one was not only okay with it, but pushed her to apply.

“She has volunteered for National Adoption Day since she was about seven.” She thought this job at Dallas CASA was an obvious next step for her mother to take.

LaValle recalls that the overwhelming support was balanced with concern from their younger child about how she might handle being immersed in details of child abuse cases.

Other parts of her job highlight her ability to communicate effectively – inform, and when she needs to, persuade. On CASA Day at the state capital, she joined other members of their legislative advocacy team in meetings with lawmakers; at board meetings, she highlights issues and decisions being made that impact the services they provide.

“Being a familiar brand is important to our efforts to recruit volunteer advocates to serve the children,” said LaValle.

That’s why she also works to establish and foster community connections by opening up their training center to any nonprofit that serves children or families. The Dallas County Welfare Board, Dallas County Disproportionality and Disparities Committee, and the North Texas Coalition Against Human Trafficking all meet in Dallas CASA’s building.

The organizations may be different but people at each are united in their commitment to improving outcomes for children in need.

LaValle’s team takes all Dallas County child welfare case appointments – something unique to a nonprofit CASA program operating in an urban area the size of Dallas County.

“We achieved 100 percent acceptance five years ago, and we’ve been able to sustain it,” said LaValle. That adds up to more than 7,000 children being served by about 2,700 volunteer advocates.

To continue operating at that level, LaValle and the development team also invest time in researching grants and other fundraising opportunities; she serves on a statewide committee called the Public Private Partnership – overseen by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services; and she is on the board for the North Texas Foster Care Coalition.

Her days look nothing like they did when she was immersed in legal work. But LaValle says leading a team that helps improve the lives of thousands of North Texas children is the best job in the world.