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Editor’s Message: Court Improvement Dependency Courts

Judge Dean LewisJ. Dean Lewis, Judge (retired)
Former Member, National CASA Association Board of Directors
Past President, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges



This issue of The Judges’ Page endeavors to share with readers the purpose of the Court Improvement Program (CIP) and some successful projects this program has generated.

As a result of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (PL 96-272), courts assumed a new role in child welfare cases—that of overseeing dependency cases and holding periodic reviews of the status of children in care. This was a major shift in public policy and instituted a checks and balances system for child welfare cases. The courts endeavored to fulfill this role with somewhat inconsistent results until passage of federal legislation creating the Court Improvement Program in 1993 (PL 103-66) and the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997(PL 105-89), known as ASFA.  

The CIP legislation provided federal funding for state courts to assess their processes for reviewing and hearing dependency cases; to undertake strategic planning to formulate recommendations for reforming these processes; and to implement these recommendations. With creation of the Court Improvement Program, chief justices across the nation began convening stakeholder committees to comply with the CIP requirements. In 1997, ASFA requirements began to impact and focus Court Improvement Program efforts. Most notably, ASFA fine tuned the role of courts in reviewing the status of children in care by establishing timelines for court review, setting deadlines for achieving permanency, and creating national standards for measured outcomes in the areas of child safety, permanency and child and family well-being.

The federal government should be commended for its efforts in funding CIP projects. Governments sometimes enact legislation without giving courts the tools to implement change effectively. In the case of Court Improvement Programs, the courts were given funding to analyze how best to implement court reform. As a result, CIP projects abound throughout the nation and the goals of ASFA are being achieved. While there is always room for additional improvement, for those observers of child welfare court practice over the past twenty years, the conclusion is obvious—CIP projects have demonstrated effective reform of court practice and have improved outcomes for children and youth in foster care.

Articles in this issue demonstrate the impact of court improvement projects on dependency courts:

  • Judge Leonard Edwards (ret.), past president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, gives an historical perspective to the Court Improvement Program and describes the work of national organizations in helping states achieve the CIP mission.
  • Justice Carlos R. Moreno, associate justice of the California Supreme Court and Chair of the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care, explains how CIP funding assisted the commission in implementing collaborative efforts and shares his family’s personal encounter with the child welfare system.
  • Judge Sharon S. Townsend serves as chair of the Child Welfare Court Improvement Project of New York and lead judge for the statewide model court. She writes of the partnership developed between child welfare and judicial education incorporating NCJFCJ model court protocols.
  • Lelia Baum Hopper, JD, serves as director of the Court Improvement Program in Virginia. She explains Virginia’s implementation of the Best Practice Court Program offered to judges who request advanced training and assistance in implementing CIP reforms.
  • Kelli Hauptman, Nebraska court improvement staff attorney assigned to the “Through the Eyes of the Child Initiative.” The project was led by the chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court, with assistance of CIP funding.
  • Shary K. Mason, model court and training analyst of the Oregon Juvenile Court Improvement Program, describes efforts to develop statewide recommendations for courts to consider age-appropriate input from children and youth regarding permanency.
  • Joe Gagen, JD, chief executive officer of Texas CASA, explains how Texas CASA has used CIP funds to recruit more CASA volunteers, expand CASA’s geographic reach and train volunteers to provide quality advocacy.
  • Amy J. Benda serves as executive director of the Sioux Falls Area CASA program and serves on the South Dakota CIP Committee. She shares some of the diverse programs instituted by CIP and notes the benefits of the partnership between Court Improvement Programs and CASA programs.
  • Michele Bush is the executive director of West Virginia CASA Association and serves as a member of the Oversight Board of the West Virginia CIP. She shares the support CIP has given to CASA programs and volunteers including funding for the CASA conference and a video to educate parents titled “The Time is Now.”
  • Bill Fowler is the executive director of the Nevada CASA Association and a member of Nevada CIP’s Select Committee. He notes that Nevada’s CIP funded the creation of the state CASA association and has assisted various CASA programs throughout the state.
  • Elizabeth Whitney Barnes, assistant director of NCJFCJ’s Permanency Planning for Children Department Model Courts, writes about NCJFCJ model court coordination with Court Improvement Programs. She also offers examples of model court-CIP collaborations.
  • Paula Campbell, information specialist at NCJFCJ’s Permanency Planning for Children Department, shares web resources relevant to CIP programs.
The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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