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Child Involvement in Court Benefits Everyone

Leslie Starr Heimov, Executive Director, Children’s Law Center of California

Summary: The author offers the perspective of an attorney representing children and explains that child participation offers a sense of connectedness to the decisions and decision makers and, ultimately, increases the child’s satisfaction with the court process.

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 “The right to legal representation for children in dependency proceedings is meaningless unless
that counsel is effective”—Kenny A. v. Purdue, 218 F.R.D. 277 (N.D. Georgia 2005).

“It made me feel like I was important considering that people (professionals) could put a
face with the case number.~ Arizona foster youth

"Going to court was helpful because I did not have reason to  believe that something was
hidden from me.”
~ Texas foster youth

At Children’s Law Center of California we have a long held belief that an attorney cannot provide competent and effective representation without a client present. Accordingly, our child clients, starting at age 4 or 5, regularly attend court hearings and are involved in the process at every stage of their dependency case.

California is home to one of the largest foster care systems in the nation, and between our offices in Sacramento and Los Angeles, Children’s Law Center of California represents 28,000 children and youth.  We are proud to be part of a child welfare system state that takes seriously the notion that children and youth have the right to be present at court hearings where critical decisions are made impacting their families and their lives. 

Children and youth experience a great deal of frustration and anxiety when they are excluded from the decision-making process and are not given an opportunity to communicate with the judge or to ask questions about the proceedings. Judges and attorneys report that without the child’s participation it is difficult to know exactly what is happening in the child’s life—that information gleaned from reports only gives a partial picture of who the child really is, and when the child is not present, court hearings can lose their focus on the child, on the urgency or gravity of the day’s decisions.

When children and youth are able to attend their hearings, the benefits to the child and to the court process are without question. Children in court ask questions, engage in discussion with the judge, offer valuable information, and leave with an understanding of why certain decisions have been made, even if they are not always happy with the outcome. Decisions made without youth involvement will understandably be met with frustration and resistance.

Children and youth have more faith in a process that they are a part of. They are empowered by seeing that they can play a meaningful role in the decision making about the most important things in their lives, such as how their family relationships may or may not change, who they will live with and where they will go to school. Additional benefits to the child include modeling of decision making and problem solving, instilling greater confidence that their attorney really is fighting for them, giving the child a more realistic view of the family’s situation, allowing them to feel a sense of connectedness to the decisions and decision makers, and ultimately, experiencing an increased satisfaction with the court process.

Judges can learn a great deal from having even the youngest children present in the courtroom. Observing the child’s interactions with other family members, hearing in the child’s own words about their situation, current placement, school environment, needs and wants, hopes and dreams gives the hearing officer a much broader and deeper understanding of how to best proceed on the child’s behalf. Changes in the child’s demeanor, affect and attitude can often only be ascertained from a face-to-face interaction.

We practice in a jurisdiction where we take for granted that the vast majority of our children and youth attend their court hearings on a regular basis. Unfortunately, what is a regular, daily occurrence in our courts does not occur in many courts across our country. Often, opponents of child presence in the courtroom speak of wanting to protect he child. Our experience for the past 22 years has been that it is not the children but rather the adults who are protected by a lack of youth presence in the courtroom. As attorneys it is our job to advocate zealously for our young clients. Without our young clients by our side we are destined to fall short.

“I never went to court. I have been in and out of foster care since I was a baby 
and I really resent that I never got the chance to speak on my behalf, or
even 
be present when my future was being discussed.”  ~ South Dakota foster youth

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