AUSTIN - There is practically no other area of law in which the stakes are higher and judges need more support than in child protection cases.
Yet, our court system reflects a serious misallocation of resources. Simple fender-bender cases are often afforded weeklong trials, while decisions regarding where a child will live, what family members a child may see and whether family reunification is possible must typically be made in 15 minutes or less due to overcrowded dockets.
This is why the Supreme Court of Texas recently held a historic hearing to gather public input on a court-appointed consultative group's recommendation that the Court establish a Permanent Judicial Commission on Children, Youth and Families.
More than 30 speakers representing a broad array of participants in the child-protection system relayed the substantial challenges they face in meeting the needs of foster children who have come into the state's care due to abuse or neglect at home. The message was loud and clear. Stable kids become responsible adults, but, those too often who fall through the cracks wind up on the streets or in prison. Courts, as gatekeepers for families in crisis, play a critical role in determining which it will be. And courts lack the resources needed to make the best decisions.
Barbara Elias-Perciful, an attorney for children and parents and founder of Texas Lawyers for Children, relayed at the hearing a tragic instance where a court-appointed guardian's lack of adequate information and training caused a child to be returned to a dangerous home, where she was locked in a closet and abused for six years before her plight was discovered.
F. Scott McCown, a retired judge who presided over child-protection cases for 14 years, spoke at the hearing, saying nothing in academia or a blue-chip law practice prepared him to handle these types of cases. Multidisciplinary training in such fields as substance abuse, mental health, child development and domestic violence is needed before good decisions that dramatically impact a child's and a family's future can be made.
Quality judicial training and adequate time allocation are only part of the solution. For optimal decision-making, judges require meaningful input from a number of crucial sources, like Child Protective Services caseworkers, guardians and attorneys, and court-appointed special advocates. Training for these roles is critical as well.
When the courts collaborate with well-prepared and trained professionals in the child protection system, good things happen. In most cases, with appropriate counseling, families can be safely reunited and make a fresh start. If they cannot, loving and adoptive families may be available. Far too many children, though, get stuck in the system, aging out of foster care with no place to go. Statistics show that their futures are bleak.
Courts and child protection agencies across the country face similar challenges. Leonard P. Edwards, a former California superior court judge and nationally recognized expert in the field, reported at the hearing that no state does it all well. As a specialty, child protection law is in its infancy. Few attorneys reach the bench from this area of practice, and those who do soon rotate out to take on civil dockets perceived to be more prestigious in nature. The judicial culture needs to change, and leadership must come from all levels of the court system.
The unanimous consensus at September's hearing was that a Permanent Judicial Commission on Children, Youth and Families would provide a vehicle for leadership and collaboration among the judiciary, the Legislature, state child welfare agencies, various stakeholders and the community. Best practices that have been developed in various parts of the state can be shared with others, and data can be gathered to measure progress and quantify the need for resources. Most importantly, real change can be effected that will improve the lives and life chances of Texas children who find themselves in the foster care system through no fault of their own.
As Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson stated at the conclusion of the hearing, "The Court has heard the term 'forgotten children.' I hope our presence here today indicates that we have not forgotten."
Harriet O'Neill is a Justice of the Texas Supreme Court and Liaison to the Supreme Court Task Force on Foster Care.
Emphasis added by H4K Editor