Child welfare cases are heard in courts because parents and children have legal rights, and the role of lawyers and judges is to protect those rights. But in a typical court case, when one side wins, the other side loses. In child welfare, that’s not the case. When parents lose, children lose. Children and parents both do best when children can safely return home.
With that in mind, the Model Courts project of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) and the Safe Babies Court Teams Project of ZERO TO THREE are working to empower parents in court. Here, Washington State’s King County Superior Court Commissioner Mark Hillman, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Margaret Henry, and Safe Babies Court Teams Project Director Lucy Hudson describe their efforts to change parents’ experiences in court:
Hillman: We’ve hired 10 “Veteran Parents” to work in our courts. All of them have successfully reunified with their children, and their job is to reach out and support every new parent that comes into court. Our Veteran Parents also offer a one-day Dependency Court 101 class that gives parents information about what to expect in court.
I can tell a parent time and time again, “You have to engage in services if you want to get your child back.” But that just doesn’t compare to having a parent who is able to say: “I was in the same place you are, and I got my child back. This is how I did it.”
Henry: About five years ago, we started a drug court for parents whose primary problem is addiction. We try to make the whole court experience a more supportive, less intimidating experience. I take off my robe and go out into the courtroom in civilian clothes.
First I meet with the social workers and attorneys to talk about each parent’s progress. Then the whole group of parents comes in. Sometimes they bring their children. Sometimes they bring their parents. I ask each parent to talk about what’s working for them and anything they’d like to share. As a group we do a lot of applauding. I think parents feel supported by the court and by each other. As a result, we have a much higher rate of successful reunification than in the regular court.
Hudson: Typically in the court system the parent is kind of the odd man out. There are a lot of different people in the room arguing with each other. I think it feels very threatening.
In the Safe Babies’ courts, we have someone whose job is to coordinate what everybody does, so instead of fighting they’re focused as a team on the most important thing: How can we give the best life to this baby?
Our first goal is really to support parents to get all the help they need because we think the best outcome for the baby is if we can safely reunify.
This approach has made a difference in outcomes. In 2009, our research found that 99% of our babies experienced no further maltreatment. They also had their cases closed about a year faster than other babies. And, while only 38% of babies nationwide reunify with a parent or live permanently with other family members, 62% of our babies return to their parents or family.
Henry: The other main thing we’ve tried to do is improve parent representation. In the past, our parents were represented by lawyers who were paid a flat rate per case, and they weren’t paid much. That meant attorneys had an incentive to do less work for parents.
But we knew from other areas that having strong lawyers could help parents and children successfully reunify. Today, approximately 90% of our parents are represented by a lawyer working for a firm, who has a supervisor, is paid a salary, and has a social worker and an investigator on his or her team. They’re much more likely to take a case to trial and to bring problems with visits or services to the attention of the court quickly. If problems are fixed earlier, children should come home sooner.
Hillman: Veteran Parents have also helped to improve relationships between parents and lawyers. They can help parents choose their battles. Or they can say, “Look, this attorney is probably carrying 20-30 cases. You have to be diligent in calling.” At the same time, if an attorney is really not doing his or her job, the Veteran Parent can say, “It’s OK for you to go in there and fire your attorney.” They can offer moral support.
Hudson: One of the main things we do is train court officials about child development, and the fact that removing a baby from a parent is a traumatic experience for that baby. Now lawyers who knew nothing about child development are starting to ask, “How often is this baby seeing the mom?”
We also train court personnel to recognize the trauma that parents bring with them to the table. For example, parents who have children as teenagers were often sexually abused as children. Domestic violence, depression, and substance abuse are all symptoms of a desperately painful childhood. We train court personnel to think about the long history of telling people who aren’t white and middle class that there’s something wrong with them and that they aren’t qualified to be parents. We try to help judges and lawyers bring all this understanding into the messages they send and the decisions they make.
Henry: All these changes are the right thing to do. At the same time, they are a challenge, especially when courts are facing so many budget cutbacks and are so overwhelmed with cases.
Hillman: I believe reforms will spread to other places when we can show that the reforms we’ve made have been successful.