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Bar News - August 17, 2012

Innovation in Tough Times: Giving Children Greater Voice In Abuse & Neglect Proceedings


Innovations in Tough Times
Part 1: Probation Reform Program Brings New Hope, July 13, 2012

Part 2: Giving Children Greater Voice In Abuse & Neglect Proceedings, August 17, 2012

Part 3: Rethinking Jail: The ‘Community Corrections’ Approach in Sullivan County, September 14, 2012

Part 4: Derry Court Pilot Project Adds Misdemeanor Hearing, November 16, 2012

Part 5: Judge Holds Court in School, February 22, 2013

Part 6: The Future of Drug and Mental Health Courts in NH , April 19, 2013

Protocols for incorporating input from children into permanency proceedings will soon be implemented in 36 of the state’s family division sites. (Photo courtesy of national CASA)

An example of a drawing submitted to a judge in the Model Court Project by a child whose family is involved in abuse & neglect proceedings. Drawings like these are submitted along with interview reports and other information to help make decisions on permanency. 
Editor’s Note: This is an enhanced version of the article published in the August 17 issue of the Bar News, adding additional background throughout.

This is the second article in a Bar News series, "Innovations in Tough Times", reporting on projects in the state courts to develop new approaches to providing justice that emphasize efficiency and effectiveness. Some innovations derive from the Innovation Commission that developed the Circuit Court, others are projects that orginated in different ways. Kristen Senz is a freelance writer who has reported on several articles for the
Bar News.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1962 amendments to the Social Security Act that, for the first time, formally put the responsibility for child protective services into government hands. That same year, Henry Kempe published his landmark article, The Battered Child Syndrome, which drew the attention of the news media to the issues of child abuse and neglect.

Five decades later, the results of national research on the effects of abuse and neglect, as well as studies of the social and legal systems that are in place to handle such cases, have shed new light on the complexities of child welfare, illuminating more effective strategies for minimizing harm to children and families.

In New Hampshire, the Model Court Project is bringing these new strategies into practice. One of 36 Model Court sites selected by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the 6th Circuit Franklin and Concord family division courts have become laboratories for developing best practices in legal processes following charges of child abuse or neglect.

With support from the federally funded New Hampshire Court Improvement Project, which was created in 1994 to work toward similar goals, the multidisciplinary group that makes up the Model Court Project has developed a set of protocols that stress the importance of timely court filings, expedited hearings, and child participation in court proceedings.

Sixth Circuit Family Division Judge Edward “Ned” Gordon, who serves as lead judge on the Model Court Project, said the new approach is designed to refocus the court on the well-being of the children and youth involved in these cases.

“It’s made a huge difference here in Franklin,” says Gordon. “When you have children involved, it really does feel like a family court, and when we have a child (in the courtroom), the focus isn’t on the culpability of the parent; the focus is on the wellbeing of the child.”

The Model Court protocols, which have been implemented in Concord and Franklin and are expected to roll out statewide by the middle of 2013, were a collaboration of the court, the New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families, CASA of NH and other guardians ad litem, and attorneys who represented parents in abuse and neglect cases. (See article about the status of dispute over whether parents accused in abuse and neglect cases are entitled to representation.

When parents are charged with child abuse or neglect, the stakes are high. If the issues that led to the charge aren’t adequately addressed within a year, parents run the risk losing their parental rights, seeing their children put in foster care and, potentially, adopted by someone else. The court seeks to restore families when possible, but when cases call for terminating parental rights, the court must find a new permanent home for the child. The time it takes for a case to reach the permanency hearing stage — often, three or four unstable years — can have a profound effect on the child’s life.

“The Model Court Project seeks to reduce that (time period) to less than 24 months,” Judge Gordon said.

In New Hampshire, the stakeholders in the child protection system have worked closely to think creatively about ways to smooth out these inherently difficult and often devastating transitions and allow children and youth caught in the middle to have a voice throughout the process.

Historically, while many judges have met with youth privately during abuse and neglect cases, there has been no consistent statewide policy surrounding child participation in court proceedings. The effort to establish consistent guidelines stemmed from national research and feedback from youth and parents, but it quickly became clear that encouraging children to participate in the court process also benefited judges in their decision-making.

“The idea is that the judge, at some point, should see every child, even if it’s a toddler,” Gordon said, “to see who this individual, who this person, is.”

CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of New Hampshire volunteers are among those appointed by the court as guardians ad litem (GALs) for children in abuse and neglect cases. Under the Model Court’s guidelines on involving youth in court, a GAL’s role is to ensure the child receives a personalized letter from the judge about participating in court hearings and to help the child decide whether and how to participate. Children who don’t want to attend hearings are encouraged to write letters, draw pictures or submit photographs to represent themselves and how they feel.

Marty Sink, president and founder of CASA of NH, was chairman of the Model Court subcommittee on involving youth in court. She said despite some early skepticism, the new policies have been well received within the state’s child protection sphere. “There was some reluctance from a variety of folks who were not too sure (the courtroom) is an environment youth should be exposed to,” she said.

GALs, who are appointed for the life of a case and often connect children and families with community resources, also help children prepare for court hearings and debrief them afterwards. The goal, Gordon said, is for children and youth to no longer view the courtroom as a scary and unpleasant place.

“The perception by most kids is that the courtroom is a very intimidating, unfriendly, and unhappy place, but we want to change that,” he said.

Kristy Lamont, an attorney and the coordinator of the NH Court Improvement Project (CIP) since 1997, has also worked on the Model Court Project. Lamont says New Hampshire has set itself apart from other states because its guidelines encourage child participation at all ages and in all hearings, not just the permanency hearing. “We want kids to come early in the case and we want all kids to come, infants up to young adults,” she said.

The CIP identified child involvement in abuse and neglect hearings as an important goal several years ago. Through the Model Court Project and with the use of CIP funds (the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges provides technical assistance and training for the Model Court, but not funding), the protocols are now being implemented.

The CIP currently receives about $330,000 in federal funds per two-year grant cycle and must demonstrate in-kind contributions totaling $110,000 per cycle. These funds recently supported the production of a short video that introduces children and youth to the court process.

“What you have to say is important,” Judge Gordon says in the video. “Your point of view will be considered carefully. However, please understand that it’s my job to consider the points of view of everyone involved in the case, so judges can’t always give you what you may want.”

Gordon took over the position of Model Court lead judge after former lead judge Susan Carbon became director of the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women. Gordon says he was “critical” of the child protection system and DCYF when he was a state senator, from 1994 to 2002. “They’ve come a long way and they’re far more sensitive to the needs of families for success in the long run, and I think that’s due to a shift in philosophies nationally,” he said.

DCYF Director Maggie Bishop, who started with the agency as a social worker more than 30 years ago, says the goals of the Model Court align well with the goals of DCYF, which now has less than 700 children placed outside the home at a given time, compared with 1,400 in 2006. DCYF has worked harder in recent years to reunify families and find relatives to adopt children when necessary, she said.

“I think what happened was, especially for older kids with harder and more challenging behaviors and mental health conditions, it was easier for families to just say no, and we didn’t push it and we didn’t keep going back looking for somebody else,” Bishop said. “It became a practice and a belief that, ‘Well, we tried our best.’”

National research has proven the importance of trying harder, Bishop says. She and her staff have worked to bring the voices of children and parents to the table when formulating policies, she said, and she’s grateful for Gordon’s leadership on the Model Court Project. “Now he’s a judge,” Bishop said, “and I think when you see it from within the system, your lens is different”

In addition to engaging youth in the court process, the Model Court Project aims to assist children who age out of the judicial system before becoming formally adopted. Statistics show that a high percentage of teenagers in foster care are maladapted to the demands of adulthood. Model Court collaborators are working to put more emphasis on helping these youth establish lasting connections with caring adults, to keep adoptions within the family of origin when possible, and to reduce and ease transfers from one school district to another. Accessing federal funds and other resources for this population has also become a priority.

Judge Gordon and the rest of the collaborators view the Model Court Project as an exciting shift in the state’s approach to handling abuse and neglect cases. “It is rewarding and fulfilling, because you have the sense that you’re doing the very best you can, and ultimately, setting these kids on the right path,” Gordon said. “With all the negative things that have been going on, the Model Court has been extremely positive… It’s something special… and it gives the people who are working on it a sense of importance and a feeling that you’re making a difference.”

A training session on Model Court protocols for involving youth in the court process is scheduled for Sept. 21 at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord. The training is for judges, GALs, DCYF administrators and supervisors, foster parents, relative caregivers, service providers and others involved in child protection in 17 family division courts in the northern part of the state and on the seacoast, where the protocols will be implemented this fall. The remaining nine family courts will implement the protocols early next year.

The CIP also funded the production of a short video to introduce children and youth to the court process.

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