I’ve been working on developing a glossary to be used across Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services, the Courts, and DHS-contracted service providers. The glossary is nearing completion and had been developed utilizing gender inclusive and gender neutral language throughout the glossary. It is critically important for judges to recognize the importance of word choice and honoring a person’s identity by using their preferred pronouns throughout judicial proceedings in order to truly provide an equitable courtroom experience to all.
This is the eighth post of our election season series ‘Political Q&A’ with progressive candidates throughout Pennsylvania. Candidates can be anywhere in Pennsylvania running for any level of office. Please note that these are not necessarily endorsements, more of an opportunity for candidates to connect with the LGBTQ community, progressives neighbors, and others with an interest in Western Pennsylvania. If your candidate would like to participate, please contact us pghlesbian at gmail dot com.
Alyssa Cowan is our first respondent from the candidates for the Court of Common Pleas. Having some background in child welfare myself as a social worker, I was interested in how she fused her law degree with her MSW. I was struck by her intentional work to understand and lift up LGBTQIA+ neighbors and family. Read on to learn what Alyssa brings to the table.
Your Name: Alyssa Cowan
Your Pronouns: She/Her/Hers
The Office You Seek: Court of Common Pleas Judge
How do you describe your identity? Cisgender heterosexual woman
Please tell us about an underappreciated or little known asset in the local criminal justice system.
Allegheny County has a Mental Health Court (MHC) and I’m not sure how well-known this court process is within the larger community. The MHC was established in 2001 and is designed to divert individuals who commit nonviolent crimes and also have a documented mental health diagnosis to community based services. Instead of incarcerating individuals for non-violent crimes, MHC tries to keep people in their communities with their housing, benefits, and treatment programs intact along with increased supervision and programming. Many MHC clients have dual diagnoses which means that they have both mental health and substance use diagnoses. They can participate in both mental health and substance use disorder treatment through the MHC. MHC is a collaboration between the Courts, the Department of Human Services, the District Attorney, the Office of the Public Defender, and Adult Probation. MHC works to address the root causes of an individual’s involvement with the criminal justice system and also provides a blueprint for designing other diversionary programs in the future.
Tell us about the first LGBTQ person you met and what impact they had on your life?
I have a very large extended family and when you come from a large family, those family members are going to represent a diverse group of people. I grew up with several close family members who are members of the LGBTQ community. They have been close, loving individuals in my life throughout my whole life. I grew up loving them as fully inclusive members of our family. I didn’t realize the challenges and discrimination that they faced in their lives until I was a teenager. When I did realize their ongoing, daily challenges, I committed myself to being a dedicated support to them as well as to any other LGBTQ person I encountered. One of my family members was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 and subsequently died from the disease. His struggle with the disease inspired me to participate in the annual AIDSWalks in Washington, DC when I was a college student at American University.
Please tell me about your familiarity with the LGBTQ community in your district and the region.
In regard to my community affiliations, my family and I are proud members of East Liberty Presbyterian Church (ELPC). ELPC has a commitment to “work, worship, and pray in ways that transcend boundaries of race, class, ability, culture, age, gender and sexual identity.” It was very important to me and my spouse that we raise our children in a church community where everyone is welcome and given the opportunity to fully participate in all aspects of church life. Our church has a very active LGBTQ Ministry that works to educate the entire congregation on issues impacting the LGBTQ community in our region.
Based on this, what do you understand to be our top LGBTQ concerns and priorities for the Court of Common Pleas?
Across the country as well as here, we have seen an increase in hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identify particularly against transgender women of color. Additionally, fear of discrimination keeps many from reporting attacks to the police thus these crimes are underreported and LGBTQ individuals are less protected and have less access to justice. Some other barriers to justice include lack of access to legal counsel and discrimination by judges and by juries. As a judge, I would work to create a safe space and environment for LGBTQ crime victims to present their case and obtain justice through the courts.
Improving court procedures to support the needs of the LGBTQ community is work that I’m currently engaging in. In my current position, I represent our office in the Quality Improvement Center on Domestic Violence pilot project being conducted in the courts here in Allegheny County. In brief, the project is focused on the courts implementing an Adult and Child Survivor Centered Approach focused on six main principles, one of which is equity. The equity value is to work towards racial, ethnic, and gender equity in court practice and access to services. I’ve been working on developing a glossary to be used across Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services, the Courts, and DHS-contracted service providers. The glossary is nearing completion and had been developed utilizing gender inclusive and gender neutral language throughout the glossary. It is critically important for judges to recognize the importance of word choice and honoring a person’s identity by using their preferred pronouns throughout judicial proceedings in order to truly provide an equitable courtroom experience to all.
I believe there are 28 candidates vying for 9 seats on the Court of Common Pleas. That’s pretty overwhelming as a voter. Help readers understand how and why to choose whom to support in this primary election.
I encourage everyone to learn as much as they can about the candidates by reviewing their campaign websites, social media accounts, and any other information publicly available about their work. If you have any specific questions for the candidates, message them on their Facebook pages or through the emails that they provide on their campaign websites.
In addition, all practicing attorneys must maintain their bar membership and must remain in good standing with the bar. The Allegheny County Bar Association’s Judiciary Committee reviews applications and interviews candidates running for judicial office and provides ratings of those candidates. The public can learn about that process on the ACBA website. I have been rating Highly Recommended by the ACBA which is the highest rating available.
Given that judges are responsible for managing courtrooms, I do believe that it is critically important for candidates to have demonstrated experience practicing in court and have a reputation for treating everyone in the courtroom with dignity and respect and that they have a reputation for having the utmost integrity in all aspects of their life.
The Court of Common Pleas is divided into four categories: Civil, Criminal, Family, and Orphan. Help our readers understand the distinctions.
Judges in the Civil Division oversee cases involving a variety of subject areas that are very familiar to the public such as Housing Court, landlord-tenant actions, construction cases, zoning cases, personal injury cases, and employer-employee matters including workplace discrimination. Judges in the Civil Division also oversee commercial litigation such as the sale of a business and complex litigation such as cases involving multiple litigants.
Judges in the Criminal Division oversee any cases involving crimes enumerated in Pennsylvania’s Crimes Codes. This includes oversight of individuals who participate in Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) Programs which is available as an alternative to trial for first time offenders who have been charged with either A DUI or possession of a controlled substance or drug paraphernalia.
Judges in the Family Division oversee custody, divorce, protection from abuse, dependency, and delinquency cases. Dependency and delinquency cases are governed by Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Act.
Judges in the Orphans Division oversee estate, adult guardianship, adoption, and mental health commitment cases. The Orphans Court has its origins in the founding of Pennsylvania by William Penn which is why the name seems outdated to us now, but its purpose has expanded over the years
How does your background in child welfare make you stand out as a candidate?
I entered this race to ensure that every family and child interacting with the court system in Allegheny County has access to fair, equitable, effective, and timely justice. In Allegheny County, there are approximately 1400 children in out of home placements through the child welfare system and 1600 secure detention admissions though the juvenile delinquency system. Children in both systems deserve timely and appropriate interventions focused on ensuring their safety and maintaining their well-being. Over the course of my career, I have developed the skill set needed to make a valuable contribution and be effective in the role of Judge in the Family Division of the Fifth Judicial District.
My career has been focused on child welfare law. I have local, state, national, and international experience in this field. I have worked as both Guardian ad Litem and Assistant County Solicitor in child welfare cases on the local level. I have provided trainings on a variety of child welfare laws across the state of Pennsylvania and have also participated in statewide workgroups dedicated to improving outcomes for court-involved youth. In my work at both the ABA Center on Children and the Law and the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, and Research at Penn, I have participated in child welfare research projects at the national level. Internationally, I have presented twice at the International Society of Family Law World Conferences; 2000 in Brisbane Australia and 2017 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
As a professional with both a law degree and a master’s degree in social work, I am able to navigate the complex legal and emotional aspects of working in the Family Division. Families and children appear in the courtroom in crisis often having experienced significant trauma in their lives. My professional experiences have allowed me to develop skills in active listening and empathy. This gives me the ability to de-escalate high stress situations in order to resolve conflict rather than exacerbate it. My goals as a Judge would be for families to have the opportunity to be heard on a level-playing field in the courtroom, to leave their hearings with confidence in the system, and to have peace with the result whether it is their preferred outcome or not.
When your career has been so focused on one population or issue, how do you develop the skills necessary to adjudicate other types of cases?
I have developed my trial skills through years of courtroom practice including acting as sole counsel in approximately 8,000 child welfare hearings, 500 of which I have tried to verdict. Even though my work has been focused on juvenile law, these trials involve the same rules of evidence and of course the applicable rules of procedure, utilized across other courtrooms. The general skills that I have developed can be applied to other areas of the law. I have called numerous expert witnesses to testify and believe that for any trial to proceed smoothly, the judge needs to manage the courtroom well and set the tone for productive work. The tone I will set will be focused on treating everyone who walks into the coatroom with dignity and respect, engaging in trauma-informed practice, and utilizing both my legal and social work skills to de-escalate high-conflict situations.
What changes could be made in Allegheny County Courts to better support children?
When I practiced law in Washington, DC, we had access to mediation services for all of our cases prior to scheduling a trial. I would like to see more access to mediation services here in Allegheny County. Mediation can decrease the amount of time children and families spend in a courtroom and increase the time they spend working collaboratively with their attorneys to access services quickly and solve the problems that brought them to the attention of the court.
As a professional with both a law degree and a master’s degree in social work, I understand that many families become court-involved due to a significant crisis in their lives and having experienced significant trauma. Just like social workers, mediators are trained in active listening and empathy skills.
How does your division of CYF directly support LGBTQIA+ children and families?
In my current position, representing Allegheny County’s Children, Youth, and Families (CYF) in the Court of Common Pleas, I work with a number of cases involving LGBTQIA+ youth. Sadly, LGBTQIA+ are overrepresented in the foster care system because they are more likely to run away or be kicked out of their homes when their families are not accepting of their LGBTQIA+ identify. I have a lot of experience in working with LGBTQIA+ youth as a result. These youth tend to face more hardships than other youth in foster care due to their birth families often cutting off all contact entirely with them.
One of my current cases involves a transgender teen who was assigned the male sex at birth but identifies as female. This teen came into the care of CYF as a result of her adoptive parent not being able to handle the challenges of her working through her gender identity. When this child was moved from her adoptive parent’s care into the custody of the county, she began to more freely and clearly articulate her identity. In my role, I have been working through the court to ensure that this teen is able to participate in the girls’ programming rather than the boys’ programming at her placement and I will continue to provide her with as much support as possible through the court system.
How does intersectionality inform your work?
In my personal life, as a white woman, I have had both opportunities that others have not had as well as challenges that others have not had. In terms of opportunities, I was fortunate to benefit from excellent schools and safe neighborhoods. In terms of challenges, I have had to work against biases in regard to what women can and should achieve, sometimes even within my own family, and how to not let those biases limit me.
In my work, I think often about the specific needs and experiences of the families I’m working with and how the discrimination they face in their lives is often multi-layered and complex because of intersectionality. In order to create an equitable court system, we need to unpack those layers and ensure that we’re meeting the specific needs of the individuals appearing before us in order to truly resolve the issues that are bringing them into the courtroom. As a social worker, I was trained in the ecological model of systems theory and human development. In brief, the ecological model honors intersectionality in that it requires an examination of a person’s relationship with their family, community, and wider society and how the roles, norms, and rules within their family, community, and the wider society impact a person’s life experience and trajectory. As a judge, I will continue to use both the framework of intersectionality and the ecological model to work towards a true understanding of the challenges facing those appearing in my courtroom.
Why does it matter that we have representation in race, gender, ethnicity, and other identities as judges?
I believe that the court system needs to represent the public because it serves the public. In order to represent the public, the court system needs to have diversity of all forms in its judges and also in the court personnel because we live in a diverse community and world. Diversity brings new ideas and experiences to the table and we all need to have that constant dialogue and education in order to effectuate change and offer real solutions to the complex problems bringing people into the courthouse. In addition, the public needs to trust in the fairness and impartiality of the judiciary. In order to build and maintain that trust, the judiciary itself needs to be diverse. If the judiciary is only comprised of one type of person then the public may rightly believe that it is a system that only protects the rights of that one type of person. In order to have a peaceful society truly governed by the rule of law then we need to have public trust in our judicial system and in order to achieve that trust, we need to have a judiciary that reflects the broad diversity of the public it serves.
Why did you agree to complete this Q&A?
Given the events associated with last year’s presidential election especially the January 6th attack on our nation’s capital as well as the ongoing efforts to make voting more difficult in some regions of the country, we’ve seen how fragile our democracy is. In order to maintain our democracy, we need to have informed, engaged voters. This Q&A with candidates serves the public’s need for access to the candidates and information about the candidates. I appreciate the work of the Pgh Lesbian Correspondents in supporting our democracy and creating this space for educating the pubic about this upcoming primary election on May 18th and wanted to do my part to participate in that process as well.
Tell me about your endorsements and supporters.
This campaign has been fortunate to receive overwhelming support from the local community. Our endorsements from elected officials include Pennsylvania State Representatives Emily Kinkead (District 20), Dan Frankel (District 23), and Nick Pisciottano (District 38), as well as City Councilperson Erika Strassburger and former PA State Rep. Dem. nominee for District 30 Lissa Geiger Shulman. We also received the endorsement of OnePA, an organization whose mission is to tackle the fundamental economic justice and political participation problems of our community
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I think that it is important to acknowledge that implicit bias exists in all settings including in the judicial system. Implicit bias comes from the messages, attitudes, and stereotypes we pick up from the world we live in. These messages are unavoidable, but we all can and should make active efforts to educate ourselves about the fallacy behind these messages in order to combat implicit bias.
As a judge, it is even more critical to engage in ongoing education around issues of implicit bias given that judges are tasked with assessing credibility of witnesses and rendering decisions. These are two circumstances where implicit bias could have a very adverse impact on those appearing before the judge.
Judges need to provide leadership around these issues within the courts. Judges can work to plan trainings that promote an appreciation of group differences and multicultural viewpoints. Judges can also work to convene roundtable discussions and set-up protocols for courtroom participants to provide feedback on what they observe in a courtroom.
In my career, I have had the opportunity to address implicit bias in the legal training setting. When I worked with the Pennsylvania Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network as a Legal Services Training Specialist, we worked to ensure that issues of diversity, gender equality, and inclusion were integrated into all of our trainings. Our trainings were offered to caseworkers, paralegals, attorneys, hearing officers and judges. All of the trainings were approved for CLE credits and were offered across the state so they reached a wide audience of legal practitioners.
Where can readers find your campaign on social media?
You can find us on Facebook at facebook.com/Cowan4Judge — it’s a huge help to the campaign if you like our page and share our posts to your network of friends and family.
How can they donate to your campaign?
Donation to my committee can be made by visiting votecowan.com/donate
Thank you, Alyssa.
Other Q&A’s in this election cycle series. You can read previous cycle Q&A’s here.
Q&A with Alyssa Cowan, Candidate for Court of Common Pleas Judge
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