Bar News - August 23, 2013
Improving Outcomes for Older Teens in Foster Care
By: Kristen Senz
They move from foster home to foster home, never being adopted. Reunification with their birth parents isn’t possible. And as they edge toward adulthood – and the end of their involvement with the court system – no one quite knows who will support them. Legally, they will be very much alone.
That’s life for about 100 young people in New Hampshire who fall into a category called “another permanent planned living arrangement,” or APPLA. The least preferred outcome for children involved in abuse and neglect cases, APPLA designations usually happen with older children, who are generally less likely to be adopted, or those with severe mental or physical disabilities. Sometimes, kids older than 14, who by law must agree to be adopted, refuse and end up classified as APPLA.
Judge Edward “Ned” Gordon and others involved with the New Hampshire Model Court Project are working to change the status and perception of APPLA cases with the latest in a series of pilot projects designed to improve processes and outcomes in cases of child abuse and neglect. A new set of protocols takes a “four-cornered approach” to improving how the court handles cases in which young adults are aging out of the foster care system, which usually happens by age 18 and always by 21, Gordon said.
“The APPLA category has not in the past received a lot of attention, so the Model Court Project is focusing on those kids, with the intent of providing better outcomes and hopefully making them more successful as adults,” said Gordon, the Model Court Project’s lead judge.
The newly developed protocols are designed to keep the court focused on the wellbeing of kids in the APPLA category in four ways: 1.) by identifying a primary caring adult with whom the youth may or may not live, who will care for the child on an indefinite basis, 2.) by identifying family relationships and other supportive adults to create a support network, 3.) by preparing kids for adulthood through education and support services, and 4.) by continuing to look for another permanent arrangement.
“Even though APPLA, ultimately, is the outcome for them, we still want to keep looking at the fact that there could be a guardianship or an adoption,” Gordon said.
Historically, judges review APPLA cases annually. “Perhaps they would come back to court once a year and you would review them, and you would hear that they’re doing well in foster care, and then you wait to see them again next year,” Gordon lamented.
The new protocols, which were finalized in July and have not yet been made public, encourage longer and more frequent post-permanency hearings. While judges retain discretion on how to approach these hearings, the protocols promote an informal “roundtable” format, where the young person, the judge, a guardian ad litem, DCYF staff, foster parents and others involved in the child’s life have a roughly 30-minute discussion about the child’s support system and future.
“The nature of this is so different,” said Kristy Lamont, coordinator of the NH Court Improvement Project. A federally funded initiative based at the administrative office of the courts, the NH Court Improvement Project’s staff and resources support the Model Court’s work to improve outcomes for children involved in abuse and neglect cases. Lamont says the post-permanency hearings will represent the biggest change for attorneys and GALs when the protocols start rolling out statewide.
“It’s not a review hearing where parents are coming in and DCYF is reporting on what they’ve done to date; it’s really about the youth,” she said. “Ideally, we would like it to be a more informal setting, to the extent that the courts are able to do that.”
The protocols will be implemented in early 2014 at the Model Court site – the 6th Circuit Franklin and Concord family division courts – as well as at the Rochester family court, as Judge Susan Ashley from that court is now part of the Model Court Project committee. Prior to that initial rollout, training sessions will be held for all stakeholders in the process, Lamont said.
The protocols will be strictly evaluated during the pilot phase. Based on feedback the court receives, Lamont said, the protocols will be modified before being rolled out statewide in phases starting in late 2014.
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.
The work of the Model Court Project began in 2008 with a multidisciplinary subcommittee developing protocols that, among other things, encourage children of all ages to attend their parents’ abuse and neglect hearings to voice their opinions. Those protocols have now been implemented statewide and are viewed as being among the most sophisticated in the country.
“In my court, I think it’s been an enormous success,” Judge Gordon said. “From my perspective, you get better outcomes when you’re able to talk to kids and find out directly what they’re thinking and their perspectives on life and what their parents may have done. It’s certainly cathartic for the kids, most of whom are very enthusiastic about participating in the court process, particularly the older kids.”
The APPLA protocols were developed by a collaborative subcommittee with members representing DCYF, CASA-NH, non-CASA guardians ad litem, the courts, and the NH Department of Health and Human Services. An adoption specialist/therapist and Mary Ann Callanan, a member of the NH Bar Association, were also involved. Gordon said parents’ attorneys will become more involved going forward, now that the Legislature has restored funding for indigent parent representation.
Gordon says the work of the Model Court Project continues to be rewarding as it seeks continued improvement of court processes and outcomes in these difficult and emotional cases. “We’re very much connected,” he said. “Because we’re a small state, we can do things in Concord and Franklin that have an impact on the whole state.”
An ongoing volunteer program to provide legal information to young adults aging out of foster care received an award from the state recently. Read more.