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One Judge’s Perspective on Children in Court

Judge Nan Waller

Judge Nan Waller, Multnomah County Circuit Court, OR

Summary: The author shares her experiences with children attending dependency court hearings and notes the benefits to both the child and judge when such participation is encouraged.


“Dear Sir or Ma’am or whoever you are,

Do you have a mustache? What is your favorite color? You know everything about me and I don’t know anything about you.”

Thus began a letter from a 10-year-old child I received about 15 years ago that changed my perspective on the importance of children in dependency cases coming to court. While I had always welcomed having the children on my dependency cases in court because of the insight and information I would glean from their appearance, that letter led to my epiphany on why coming to court can be so important to the child. The letter went on with questions that this child thought I might have the answers to: did I know anything about her biological parents, had they loved her, what was her heritage and who was this person (me) who was making all of these decisions about her?

From the time that I started practicing in juvenile court and during my entire tenure as a juvenile court judge, children in Oregon have had a right to attend their dependency proceedings. In 1980 the Oregon Supreme Court declared that the doors of Oregon’s juvenile courtrooms must be open wide to all comers.[1] In holding that Oregon’s juvenile courts were not exempt from the mandate in Oregon’s Constitution that “[n]o court shall be secret, but justice shall be administered, openly ”,[2] the court opened the door to the press, protesters, court watchers as well as the children themselves. Notwithstanding the fact that children have had a right to attend their own court hearings over the last 30 years (and often have), it was not until my epiphany that I realized why we should not only respect the right but encourage its exercise. With that letter I have come to realize how frightening it must be for a child to know that there is an unknown, faceless person making the most fundamental decisions about their future:  will they go home, where are they going to grow up, are they going to have a family?

Since receiving that letter I have not only encouraged but often required that children attend their own dependency hearings. I believe that the benefits have been mutual; I have obtained invaluable information, and the court process has been demystified for children. The ability of children to engage in magical thinking about court was brought home to me shortly after I received my epiphany letter. I was conducting an adoption ceremony for a six-year-old. This was his first visit to the courthouse.  The courtroom was filled with happy adults, balloons, cupcakes— and one small child. I took the bench and enthusiastically asked the child if he knew why he was in court. This was a child who I knew had worked with a therapist around the issues of permanency and preparing for adoption. His response was a blank stare and then a flood of tears when I explained that we were celebrating his adoption day and his forever family. When he calmed down enough to talk he blurted out that he thought I was granting his wish to go home to his mommy. Notwithstanding all of the therapy and the fact that he was happy in his adoptive home, it turned out that his six-year-old magical thinking had led him to believe that the combination of celebration and meeting the unknown, yet clearly powerful person from the description given by adults—i.e., me, the judge—would mean he would get his deepest held wish.  

In my experience coming to court and putting a face to a title can be reassuring to children. Some children come and have no questions at all and are perfectly satisfied to sit and color. Some children come to court angry, ready for a confrontation. The simple fact of being able to speak and have their questions answered directly by a judge gives these children the ability to accept that while some decisions are beyond their control their position has been heard.

While I value children coming to court and will encourage and at times require it, I also recognize that the experience needs to be child-centric. My courtroom is equipped with crayons, markers and paper to entertain. Children are always given the opportunity to talk first. Depending upon their age and the issues to be discussed at the hearing, I explain to children that I may have them wait outside of the courtroom for part of the hearing.

And then there are the times when nothing is more gratifying than a child who asks not to come to court. Recently I had a young woman who has grown up under my watch after a failed adoption and too many foster homes and residential placements. This is a child who had insisted upon participating in every hearing no matter how far from the courthouse she was placed. Her message to me had been always been consistent: “I want to be a regular kid.” Recently she called in to the hearing to say that she would not be attending so that she could attend the prom committee! Although she was not present in the courtroom her voice had clearly been heard by all. And as to the child who sent me the epiphany letter—she came to court in short order, had the chance to ask all of her questions, and announced that she was ready for her adoption to finalize!                                   

[1] State ex rel Oregonian Pub. Co. v. Deiz, 289 OR 277 (1980).

[2] OR Const. art. I, § 10

Author biography:

Judge Nan Waller became the presiding judge for the Multnomah County Circuit Court on January 1, 2012, after serving as the chief family court judge in Multnomah County for five years.  Before her appointment to the circuit court in 2001 she worked as a juvenile court referee/pro tem judge.

Judge Waller has been involved in numerous collaborative efforts to improve outcomes for children and families. She chairs the Wraparound Multnomah Collaborative Council, a local initiative to address the needs of children with complex mental health issues, and has been involved in the Cross-Over Youth Practice Model. She is the statewide convener for the Casey Partnership, an initiative to safely and equitably reduce the number of children in foster care. Judge Waller serves on the Permanency Planning Committee of the National Council on Juvenile and Family Court Judges as well as on the Child Welfare Advisory Council and Oregon Youth Authority Advisory Council. She was a member of the Governor’s Racial Equity Task Force and served on the Governor’s Early Childhood Transition Team and Early Learning Design Team. She serves on the Boards of the Children’s Institute and Oregon Partnership.

Judge Waller was named 2011 National CASA Judge of the Year. Watch her acceptance speech on National CASA’s YouTube channel.

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