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Welcoming Children in Dependency Court

Judge Michael NashJudge Michael Nash, President-Elect of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ)

Summary: Judge Nash offers background on the Los Angeles County, CA, experience of providing a child sensitive facility for children to participate in the dependency court process and introduces the NCJFCJ Children in Court Policy Statement.

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How important is it for children to appear in court in dependency court proceedings? It is important enough that Los Angeles County built and opened the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court in 1992. The Children’s Court, as it is commonly known, is named after the county supervisor who spearheaded its opening. It was designed and built because the Los Angeles Dependency Court had a longstanding philosophy and practice to encourage and facilitate the appearance of children in dependency court. The view was that the children should come to court to be heard in a child-sensitive facility appropriate to the importance of these special proceedings designed to protect abused and neglected children.

So what is a child-sensitive facility? It is one that sends a message through its design and décor that the court is about and for children. It sends a message that children are important enough to have a courthouse dedicated to proceedings conducted for their benefit and that they should be there and participate in each hearing. After all, aren’t the children the most important people in dependency court proceedings? That is so even if they are not considered parties to the process, which they were not in California in 1992, but are now.

A child-sensitive facility is also one that through its treatment of children strives to reduce the anxiety that children must inevitably feel when they come to court. A child-sensitive facility is a court where children are seen and heard, and allowed to be active participants in a process designed to protect and serve them. In turn, appearing in court becomes a positive part of the healing process that every child who is involved in dependency court must go through because of the abuse and/or neglect they have suffered by the actions of people close to them.

While Los Angeles County may have been one of the first advocates of the importance of children in appearing in dependency court, it is not alone. The Pew Commission, in its landmark report on foster care in 2004, the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care in 2009, and others have recognized that engagement of all parties, including children in the dependency court process, is a key ingredient of achieving positive outcomes.

Most recently, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ)—the nation’s oldest judicial membership organization, whose goal, among other things, is to educate and assist family and juvenile court judges to improve the lives of children and families—weighed in on the subject and unanimously adopted its "NCJFCJ Children in Court Policy Statement." (88 KB PDF) It included the following recommendations on children in dependency court:

  • Children of all ages should be brought to court, unless the judge decides it is not safe and appropriate based on information provided by case participants.
  • When children are not brought to court, the judge should ask why the child is not present. If necessary, the judge should order the child be brought to court.
  • Children and youth should receive meaningful notice of and preparation for attending hearings.
  • Judges should seek and participate in trainings on how to best engage children during the hearing process.
  • Courts should develop policies and protocols to ensure that children have the opportunity to attend all hearings in the child’s dependency case. 

After months of committee deliberations—including hearing from the ABA, judges with experience with children in court and others—the NCJFCJ Board of Trustees affirmed in its policy statement:

It is the policy of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges that children of all ages should be present in court and attend each hearing, mediation, pre-trial conference, and settlement conference unless the judge decides it is not safe or appropriate.

As a juvenile court judge for more than 22 years, I have worked with the underlying notion that we must always strive to do the “right thing.” Seeing and hearing from the children we are bound to protect certainly constitutes the “right thing” to do.

Author biography:

Judge Michael Nash has served on the juvenile court in Los Angeles since 1990 and is co-chair of the California Judicial Council’s Family and Juvenile Advisory Committee. He was responsible for implementing “Adoption Saturdays” in 1998 and, through this program, more than 9000 foster children have been adopted. He also oversaw the creation of Los Angeles’ first juvenile mental health court and first juvenile drug court. Judge Nash is Former deputy attorney general in the criminal division of the California State Attorney General’s Office. He received BA in Political Science from UCLA and his law degree from Loyola Law School.

 

 

 

 

 

The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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