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NCJFCJ Recognizes and Actively Addresses Needs of Crossover Youth

Mary MentaberryMary Mentaberry
Executive Director, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

Summary: Throughout the process of guiding systemic change in both dependency and delinquency cases, it has become clear to model court lead judges and others within NCJFCJ that there is significant overlap in one particular area: the crossover youth population involved or at risk of being involved in both the dependency and delinquency systems.

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The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) is the nation’s oldest judicial membership organization. With more than 2,000 judicial and other professional members nationwide, the organization’s mission is: 

 “. . .  to provide all judges, courts, and related agencies involved with juvenile, family, and domestic violence cases with the knowledge and skills to improve the lives of the families and children who seek justice.”

Since its founding in 1937, NCFJCJ has focused on improving practice in the handling of cases related to children and families. Foundational in this work have been two key principles which still guide NCJFCJ’s work today: judicial leadership and collaboration. Judicial leaders are not willing to accept “what is”; they are constantly striving for “what should be.” They come forward with an openness to examining current practices; a motivation to convene and collaborate with key stakeholders in their jurisdictions; and a commitment to developing new processes, programs and procedures which will improve outcomes for the children and families they serve. As noted in NCJFCJ’s “Building a Better Collaboration: Facilitating Change in the Court and Child Welfare System,”[1] a judicial leader is willing to take a leadership role as a designer, a steward and a teacher, and to serve as a model for others. “It is the judge who brings us to the table, and enables us to work together. He is the one who stresses that we are there to make changes for kids...he has the ability to get people to feel good about change and that what they are doing is important and that it matters.”[2]

In 1995, NCJFCJ published a seminal document which has guided a sea change in practice over the past 15 years. The Resource Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Child Abuse & Neglect Cases[3] articulated for the first time best practices in handling of child abuse and neglect cases. A companion document, Adoption and Permanency Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases,[4] outlined best practices in handling cases from the permanency hearing through permanent placement. These documents outlined aspirational best practices, rather than describing the methods and values in place, and they have continued to guide the field as state court improvement programs, NCJFCJ’s model courts and other jurisdictions nationwide strive for excellence in handling of child protection cases.

Also in the mid 90s, NCJFCJ started its Victims Act Model Courts Project. Utilizing the key principles of NCJFCJ’s work and the Resource Guidelines as a blueprint, judicial leaders from throughout the nation volunteered to become a part of this national initiative. Through a process of critical assessment, barrier identification, planning and change, practice in dozens of courts nationwide has improved. From Los Angeles to Chicago to New York City to Washington DC, current or senior model courts have implemented practices, procedures and programs that have changed the landscape of dependency court practice nationwide.

Based upon the framework that supported NCJFCJ’s work in child protection matters, in 2005, NCJFCJ published Juvenile Delinquency Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Juvenile Delinquency Cases.[5] This document outlines best practices in juvenile delinquency cases, and is currently being used by courts nationwide as a measure for practice assessment and improvement. Several courts across the nation are working with NCJFCJ to implement the Juvenile Delinquency Guidelines in model courts, including Tucson, AZ, Cincinnati, OH, and Reno, NV, and many more are working independently to implement practice improvements in their jurisdictions.

The model courts projects in both dependency and delinquency are unique in several ways. Each court is viewed as a “laboratory for change.” New ideas are vetted, tested, implemented or discarded based upon the experience of that particular system, and are assessed by NCJFCJ using the Resource Guildelines as the evaluative framework. Model courts are learning organizations,[6] in which continued assessment, change, evaluation and improvement are the keys to success. 

Throughout the process of guiding systemic change in both dependency and delinquency cases, it has become clear to model court lead judges and others within NCJFCJ that there is significant overlap in one particular area: the crossover youth population involved or at risk of being involved in both the dependency and delinquency systems. Since recognizing the importance of meeting the special needs of this population of dually involved youth, NCJFCJ has created a cross-departmental committee to develop practice recommendations for judges hearing family and juvenile cases specific to crossover issues. 

Modeling collaboration to the greatest degree, judges are reaching beyond the bounds of their assigned case types to collaborate across courts and across systems on issues related to children and youth who find themselves enmeshed within two systems which may work at cross purposes in meeting their needs.

Many of these cases arise out of common circumstances, which include some combination of the following:

  • Families experiencing high conflict
  • Parental and/or youth substance abuse
  • Parental and/or youth mental illness
  • Exposure to domestic violence
  • Physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse of youth
  • Physical, emotional and/or educational neglect of youth
  • Youth with unmet special education needs
  • Parents involved in criminal activity and/or incarcerated

The goal in this crossover work is to promote new or continued collaboration across agencies to improve practice in courtrooms and across systems. Later this year, NCJFCJ will partner with the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University in sponsoring a Crossover Youth Mini-Conference (link to listing). Court teams from across the country will focus on challenges and successes in improving practice in this area, and will develop plans to more effectively meet the needs of youth and their families who are involved in both the dependency and delinquency systems.

The Resource Guidelines was published 15 years ago, and based on the innovative work of the model courts, NCJFCJ is ready to enhance this seminal publication. As part of the Victims Act Model Court–led NCJFCJ Courts Catalyzing Change: Achieving Equity and Fairness in Foster Care initiative to reduce disproportionality and disparities of minority children in foster care, the Resource Guidelines will be reviewed and enhanced through a race-equity lens. Included in this process—which will begin in early spring 2010—will be an evaluation of crossover issues and practice recommendations designed to meet the needs of children and families involved or at risk of being involved in both the dependency and delinquency systems.

NCJFCJ has long recognized that children, youth and families who come into contact with the court system do not often enter with a single issue to be addressed. By taking a holistic approach to meeting the needs of those within the system and by collaborating across systems, we can create a framework better able to respond to the needs of children, youth and families and the communities they represent.  

 

Editor’s Note: Mary V. Mentaberry has served as executive director of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, headquartered on the University of Nevada, Reno campus since September 2004. As executive director, her responsibilities have included overseeing all areas related to administration of the organization. She oversees an annual budget of over $15 million, including income and expenditures from as many as 80 funding sources.


 

[1]Dobbin, Shirley, Gatowski, Sophia, Maxwell, Dionne, (2004, April), “Building Better Collaboration: Facilitating Change in the Court and Child Welfare System.” Reno, NV: National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

[2] Ibid.

[3] NCJFCJ (1995). Resource Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Child Abuse & Neglect Cases. Reno, NV.

[4] NCJFCJ (2000). Adoption and Permanency Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases. Reno, NV.

[5] NCJFCJ. (2005). Juvenile Delinquency Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Juvenile Delinquency Cases. Reno, NV.

[6] Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth DisciplineNew York: Doubleday.

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