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Court: Commissioner, San Francisco Superior Appointed: March 1979 Date of Birth: Nov. 21, 1946 Law School: Hastings College of the Law Prior Judicial Experience: None Commissioner William Gargano says his friends tell him he has a depressing job. When asked what he does every day, “I say I’m dealing with cases of abandoned and neglected children,” he explained. The San Francisco family law court commissioner has found a way to cope with the heartbreaking cases that he sees — he focuses on the solution rather than the problem. “It isn’t depressing, because you see you’re helping people,” he said. “I look to the good that we do.” Gargano presides over one of the Superior Court’s two dependency courtrooms, where all matters are confidential. Only those whose cases are before the bench are permitted in. These are courtrooms where the futures of beaten, demeaned and forgotten children are determined. These are children whose parents often would rather do drugs than nurture their offspring. It’s Gargano’s job to decide if the family should stay together, or whether the child would be better off in a foster home or in some other safer haven. “It’s a real judgment call,” he said. “You have to weigh the benefits and detriments.” He handles more than 1,000 cases and takes jurisdiction over more than half of them while parents undergo psychological counseling, parenting classes or enter substance abuse clinics. “If they don’t make it, then they’re not going to get their kid back,” Gargano said. “We’re not going to put the kids in harm’s way.” Lawyers who usually represent parents in custody matters in his courtroom praise Gargano for his thoughtful manner. San Francisco solo Caroline Todd said Gargano brings “a calmness to the courtroom. You’re not afraid he’s going to say something demeaning.” “He’s just a little sweetie pie,” said attorney Edna Henley, a veteran of the family law court. “It takes a lot to piss him off.” But Henley also complained that Gargano is too ready to accept the recommendations of professionals who assess a child’s situation — often, she said, to the detriment of the parents. Deputy City Attorney Karen Carrera represents the Department of Human Services, whose social workers recommend whether to leave a child in a home or ask the court to take jurisdiction and place the child elsewhere. Carrera said Gargano approaches his work with “compassion and passion,” but doesn’t get caught up in the emotional intensity of deciding a child’s fate. “He treats the parents with respect,” she said. “The fact is they’re in court trying to get their kids back.” At a recent hearing, Gargano was presented with a case by Carrera in which both parents of a boy and girl were in jail. The mother was accused of striking the boy. A city social worker recommended the children remain in the mother’s home once the matter is resolved. Their report said the boy probably exaggerated in describing to police the action his mother took against him. Even his sister said he was “rambunctious.” Gargano accepted the social worker’s investigation of the matter and recommendation, directing that the children remain with a maternal aunt until the mother returns home. Then the kids will join her. “It seems that we can work with the family,” the commissioner said. “[We'll] try to get some services lined up to keep these kids with their mom, such as parenting classes and substance abuse.” Gargano has no children, never married and lived with and cared for his mother until her death last year. After passing the bar in 1972, he “opened up shop” with a couple of other newly minted lawyers and started a practice. “We did anything that came in the door,” he recalled. “I did some small probate and fender bender type things, but no large practice.” He managed to get his name on the dependency panel of lawyers appointed to represent indigent parents in court. Gargano was appointed a court commissioner in 1979, working mostly in juvenile dependency and delinquency courts ever since. “The real flesh and blood issues come out in family or juvenile court,” he said. One weakness in Gargano, attorneys says, is that he’s sometimes too accommodating and wants too much to be liked. “I think he tries to be all things to all people,” said Gregory Bonfilio of Bonfilio & Franco, who has practiced before Gargano since 1979. “He doesn’t have a high horse that he comes in on, unlike other judges.” Gargano’s response is that he’s a “people person” who enjoys the interaction of the courtroom. “I love nothing better than to see someone come into the court and think they’re going to be a victim in the system — and then to let them know that the court is here to get them some help,” he said. “I don’t want to be doing things to get people to like me. I want to do what’s best for the kids.”

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