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Better Information About Child Well-Being Will Result in Better Outcomes for the Whole Child

Judge HofmannJudge Rob Hofmann, Texas Child Protection Court of the Hill Country, Mason, TX

Summary: The author explains that ASFA has been the law for 15 years, yet the focus of courts and child welfare has been on court performance measures for child safety and permanency, not well-being. He encourages advocacy for implementation of child well-being court performance measures to improve child well-being outcomes.


“What is right is often forgotten by what is convenient.” Bodie Thoene

Judges want to make good decisions. Nowhere is this truer than in child welfare. The awesome responsibility and ripple effects of removing children from their families, schools and communities are not lost on judges. Often judges are not presented with adequate information; all too often, the convenient decision is wrapped in a package as the right one. Good judging is the art of making perfect decisions with imperfect evidence. Information is power. Good information provides judges the power to make good decisions in individual cases. Can good aggregate information about entire caseloads help judges make better decisions as well?

Judges tend to be averse to aggregate court data, the accumulation and comparison of court performance measures. With nuances in individual cases and jurisdictions, they argue that data is more appropriate for the business world than for the judiciary. A judge may well have coined the term “case-by-case basis.” Ask any judge, if ethics allow, and they can rightly justify each individual decision. But we may have a superficial high, thinking our decisions are better than they are, better than the average judge. It’s the old argument of anecdotes vs. statistics. Stories are sexier than stats, but the aggregation of stories can paint a picture as well. Unattractive aggregate permanency data caused Texas child protection court judges to place fewer children in permanent foster care. Can this work with child well-being?

“It's not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” Roy Disney

The Adoption and Safe Families Act [1] (ASFA) identified three goals for children in foster care systems: safety, permanency and well-being. The combined work of the Toolkit for Court Performance Measures in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases[2] and the federal Child and Family Services Reviews[3] has been overwhelmingly successful in improving outcomes in the areas of safety and permanency. Now we must ask whether these improvements in safety and permanency affect child well-being.

If so, can aggregate well-being performance measures help give well-being the prominent attention it deserves? With the more amorphous nature of well-being, is there even a way to measure outcomes? These are hard questions. In answering them, it is critical to remember that ASFA also identifies a well-being dimension of performance measures, and that these well-being measures are an accepted part of the federal review process for child welfare agencies.[4]

"Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." Martin Luther King Jr.

Although we often associate Dr. King’s quote with permanency, it may be even more appropriate for children’s well-being. The justice we afford children by keeping them “safe” may well be diminishing their welfare. How many more school changes, over-immunizations, missed visits and separated sibling placements must occur before courts begin to base their decisions on well-being?

These outcomes may be easier to measure than presumed. We can count how many parental visits a child enjoys or how many days pass before a child receives a developmental or physiological evaluation. ASFA has been with us for 15 years, but well-being court performance measures for foster children are a new trend. The importance of well-being is begging to receive its due place in court advocacy. We are beginning to see it happen. Perhaps the best way to solidify this importance is with improvements resulting from performance measures.

Challenges exist. Data exchange will be critical, but as so often is the case today, technology outpaces practice and policy. With education, the devil-in-the-details is privacy. Forget about legislating from the bench. Should judges medicate from the bench by over analyzing psychotropic prescriptions? Fortunately, these challenges are being addressed head on. Whether it’s the local broad-spectrum measures developed by California, the statewide Texas Blueprint: Transforming Education Outcomes for Children and Youth in Foster Care[5] or the national measures developed by the National Center for State Courts and their partners[6], the work is crucial and ongoing.

“Choices are the hinges of destiny.” Pythagoras

Best practice for courts is to discuss all aspects of ASFA. Agencies, CASA volunteers and guardians must consistently provide ample and reliable information for courts to make the right decisions. This constant stream of trustworthy information is especially critical regarding children’s education, mental and physical health, and connections to their families and communities. These advocates should relentlessly report to courts—in writing and through testimony—the ever-changing welfare needs of the children they serve. This consistency in individual cases, combined with the resulting improvement shown by analysis of aggregate data, will ultimately result in the elevation of children’s well-being to its proper place before courts.

CASA volunteers are uniquely qualified to gather, analyze and present this essential information. Who better has their finger on the pulse of children’s needs? Fortunately, it is a role they are familiar with and a responsibility they assume passionately. Working together, our courts can improve outcomes in all aspects of child welfare.

 

Author biography:

Judge Rob Hofmann is completing his eleventh year assigned to the Texas Child Protection Court of the Hill Country, having presided in over 11,000 dependency hearings and adoptions. With jurisdiction in twelve counties covering 13,000 square miles in rural Texas, the court typically carries cases involving approximately 500 children. Judge Hofmann has presented at several national conferences and served as faculty for the National Center for State Courts. In 2011 he was named Texas CASA judge of the year. He was recently appointed by the Texas Supreme Court as chair of the Implementation Task Force for The Texas Blueprint: Transforming Education Outcomes for Children & Youth in Foster Care. He is a graduate of Texas A&M University and Texas Tech University School of Law.

Endnotes:

[1] Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, Pub. L. No. 105-89, 111 Stat. 2115 (1997).
[2] Toolkit for Court Performance Measurement in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (2009), available at: http://www.ojjdp.gov/publications/courttoolkit.html
[3] For more information on the Children’s Bureau and the CFSR process, follow this link: http://www.childwelfare.gov/management/reform/cfsr/
[4] Nora E. Sydow and Victor E. Flango "Education Well-Being: Court Outcome Measures for Children in Foster Care," (with Nora E. Sydow) 90 Family Court Review (July) 2012: 455-466, available at: http://www.ncsc.org/sitecore/content/microsites/future-trends/home/Special-Programs/~/media/Microsites/Files/Future%20Trends/Author%20PDFs/Flango%20and%20Sydow.ashx
[5] The Texas Blueprint: Transforming Education Outcomes For Children & Youth in Foster Care. Supreme Court of Texas Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families (2012), available at: http://texaschildrenscommission.gov/PDF/TheTexasBlueprint.pdf
[6] Nora E. Sydow and Victor E. Flango, "Physical and Emotional Well-Being: Court Performance Measures for Children in Foster Care," 63 Juvenile and Family Court Journal (Fall) 2012.

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