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Developing Guidelines for Delivering Age-Appropriate Information to Children

Shary MasonShary K. Mason, Model Court and Training Analyst, Oregon Juvenile Court Improvement Program

Summary: The author describes Oregon’s development of statewide recommendations for courts to meet federal guidelines requiring that children in permanency hearings are consulted with in an age-appropriate manner.

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A recent ammendment to section 475(5)(C) of the Child and Family Services Improvement Act of 2006 (P.L. 109-288) added the requirement that states have procedural safeguards in place to ensure that in permanency hearings the court or administrative body conducting the hearing consults with children—in an age-appropriate manner—regarding the permanency and transition plans proposed for them.

In response, Oregon’s Juvenile Court Improvement Program (JCIP) added a strategy to our Basic Court Improvement Grant to develop statewide recommendations for courts to consider age-appropriate input from children when reviewing their permanency plan.

JCIP staff:

  • Collected data
  • Surveyed judges about possible concerns
  • Provided information on the federal language to all juvenile court judges
  • Provided sessions at the “Through the Eyes of the Child” conference and annual JCIP road show
  • Hosted a full-day meeting that included judges, Citizen Review Boards CASA representatives, adolescent foster children, DHS, attorneys, tribes and mental health professionals. Experts presented information at the meeting and a consultation workgroup was formed to work on a statewide protocol for age-appropriate consultation.

Federal guidance indicates that any action that permits the court to obtain the views of the child in the context of the permanency hearing could meet the Child and Family Services Improvement Act of 2006 requirement. The statute does not prescribe a particular manner in which the consultation with the child must be achieved, which provides states with some discretion in determining how they will comply with the requirement.

The term “consult” is not interpreted to require a court representative to pose a literal question to a child or to require the physical presence of the child at a permanency hearing. However, the child’s views on the child’s permanency or transition plan must be obtained by the court for consideration during the hearing. For example, an attorney, caseworker or guardian ad litem who verbally reports the child’s views to the court could also meet the requirement. 

Judges play a vital role in ensuring this requirement is met. This responsibility includes ensuring that relevant system players—such as CASA volunteers, social workers and evaluators—serve as objective gatherers and reporters of the information.

Age-appropriate consultation is an important JCIP goal. Many courts have used JCIP- recommended practices for ensuring meaningful participation of children in juvenile court permanency hearings. Several have developed their own local court protocols. JCIP also provided funding for model courts to develop tools to assist them in gathering this information. Here are a few of the projects local courts undertook:

  •  The Washington County model court team developed an orientation session, "Let's Talk About Court" that is provided quarterly. Youth are invited to come to the courthouse, and the judge, an attorney, a CASA volunteer and the Citizen Review Board field manager show a power point and talk about their part of the process. The Citizen Review Board is Oregon’s foster care review system. They developed a brochure for teens that informs them about the review process and the importance of their participation.
  • The Josephine County model court team developed and published a user-friendly brochure for children and teens that orients them to the dependency process and answers questions they may have about juvenile court, permanency hearings and the roles of participants in the system.
  • The Klamath County model court team developed informational binders for foster youth about juvenile court, foster care and independent living programs. They are presented at an orientation session. The binder includes a DVD that highlights comments of local foster youth.
  • The Polk County model court team printed 1,000 copies of an interactive children’s book to be used primarily by CASA volunteers during age-appropriate consultation with children. A sample of the book was displayed at Model Court Day of the Through the Eyes of a Child conference, so that other courts could benefit from their work on this issue. Fifteen other counties requested copies. A second book for older children has now been developed.
  • Malheur County Circuit Court purchased items for their juvenile conference room. They also develop a letter for school officials explaining the importance of court appearance in dependency hearings and requesting their assistance in helping school age children appear and have input into the court process. This is followed with a letter signed by the judge acknowledging that the child appeared in court.
  • JCIP staff and judges provided comment and helped in the development of two products produced by FosterClub, with funding from the Children’s Justice Act Task Force. One is a coloring book developed for young children featuring Foster Cub, who answers question about foster care. The booklet contains guidance for supportive adults working with the child. The other is a Quick Start Guide for teens that introduces them to foster care.

The local protocols and material mentioned can be found on the JCIP website 

 

 

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