Sustaining Energy for Permanency Planning for Children
Virginia’s Best Practice Courts

Lelia Baum Hopper, Director, Court Improvement Program, Office of the Executive Secretary, Supreme Court of Virginia

Summary: The author outlines best practice court activities and commitments and describes the extent of best practice court involvement.


Today’s challenge for Court Improvement Programs is to sustain the considerable energy required of the judiciary and professionals who daily carry out reforms instituted in child welfare over the past 15 years. Excellent court practice in the 21st century requires that we go beyond the basics of teaching timelines, correct completion of court forms and “required federal findings.” To be effective, court proceedings and orders must be supported by community professionals and services that respond in a holistic, therapeutic manner to child maltreatment and children at-risk of entry into foster care. Judicial leadership is essential to accomplish this result.

In 2002, requests by Virginia’s juvenile and domestic relations district court judges for advanced training and assistance to support local efforts to improve permanency planning for children led Virginia’s Court Improvement Program (CIP) to establish the Best Practice Courts Program. The program’s core purpose is to help judges and court personnel ensure that each child’s case is handled safely, expeditiously and in compliance with Virginia and federal requirements. However, there are other benefits to following the best practices associated with these case types.

Effective court processing of child dependency cases and enhanced community collaboration can have positive effects on the rest of the court’s docket. Many of the same children and their families are involved in other disputes before the court, such as truancy, child in need of services, custody, support, visitation and domestic violence. Courts can pursue numerous avenues to impact their service to the public and institute long-term, institutional change. Participation as a best practice court (BPC) also offers judges the opportunity to share ideas and local initiatives with and learn from other Virginia judges and with courts of similar jurisdiction in other states. Becoming a BPC is part of a process. It is not a goal.

Activities for Best Practice Courts

  • The Permanency Planning for Children Department of NCJFCJ has supported this program since its inception. Activities sponsored by Virginia’s CIP for recognized BPCs include:
  • Conference for new lead judges and new local teams with targeted training in judicial leadership and decision making. Six “new team” conferences have been held since 2002, with a total of 40 local teams attending.
  • State conferences allowing all BPC participants to share innovative approaches to the court management, trial and community collaboration of child dependency caseloads. Three such conferences have been held with 550 team members participating.
  • Funding through CIP mini-grants to allow local teams to: (1) host a multidisciplinary, local training event, (2) undertake a locally-developed initiative, such as production of court videos or publication of notebooks to guide parents through the permanency planning process, or (3) make “field visits” to view firsthand other model programs. Over 57 local training events serving more than 5,400 people and 10 special local BPC projects have been funded by CIP since 2005.
  • Technical assistance and training tailored for the best practice court at its local site.
  • Onsite consultation with a nationally recognized judicial consultant to Virginia’s CIP.
  • Opportunities for BPC lead judges to serve as faculty in other states for NCJFCJ and to network with judges in other court systems who are addressing similar challenges.
  • Participation with other model courts on the national level in trainings and cross-site visits.

Required Best Practice Court Commitments

Participation in the BPC program entails commitments from the courts, which are for a period of time into the future and not for a definitive term. Assistance from Virginia’s CIP and NCJFCJ staff is made available to accomplish some of these tasks. These commitments are:

  • Identification of a lead judge(s) and core group of multidisciplinary stakeholders in the community.
  • Regular core group meetings to address unique local issues and foster community collaboration.
  • Examination of strengths and challenges of the court and community services system to meeting dependent children and their families’ needs.
  • Incorporation in court processes of best practices from Resource Guidelines: Improving Court Practices in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases. (800 KB PDF)
  • Exploration of local court data in child dependency cases and examination of its implications for improved practice.
  • Sharing with other Virginia courts—and courts nationwide—best-practice techniques of the participating court and community.

Extent of Best Practice Court Involvement

The critical work of permanency planning for children is accomplished locally, where judges hold court, lawyers represent children and parents, and child welfare professionals seek to protect and preserve families. As of January 1, 2011, the 37 active BPC teams accounted for 60% of Virginia’s foster care caseload. BPC teams have contributed to a 27% statewide decrease in the total number of children in foster care over the past three years. The 39 lead judges represent 35% of Virginia juvenile court judges and are located in 22 of 31 judicial districts. These are noteworthy numbers to report. However, of greater significance is the opportunity the BPC program offers to sustain the momentum of reform of the child dependency court process and to nourish the enthusiasm of community partners for achieving successful outcomes for children and families.

Virginia’s best practice courts generate energy that supports localities in improving outcomes one child at a time.



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