Dependency Teen Court in Santa Clara County

Judge Shawna SchwarzShawna Schwarz, Superior Court Judge, Santa Clara County CA

Summary: The author describes starting a dependency teen court and expresses the importance to youth in knowing that the system cares about them, that the judge knows them and that they had a voice in their case.


From 2001 to 2006, I presided over the juvenile dependency cases of 2,035 children. The children ranged in age from zero to eighteen and represented a mix of case types—from parental drug abuse to abused babies to teens with serious mental health issues. Pretty much any dependency scenario you can think of, I saw during those five years. I then left the frying pan and ended up in the fire of family court, a tough judicial assignment if there ever was one.

After having been away from dependency for two years and three months, I was called back. Rather than all purpose, we-all-do-every-kind-of-case calendars, our court was moving to having judges specialize based on age (of the children, not the judges!). We had a judge presiding over family wellness court, and a court for parents with children ages zero to three. With my arrival, the supervising judge wanted to have one judge work with the adolescents. Admittedly, I was none too thrilled at the thought of working with teens full-time. But after three years and four months of a steady diet of youth ages ten and up, I can tell you in all honesty, it’s the best and hardest work I’ve ever done.

Rare are the cases where parents are afflicted by drugs and domestic violence. Instead, the reasons I see teens entering the system are 1) they have serious mental health issues and the parents are unable or unwilling to continue providing care; 2) the youth has been sexually abused; or 3) the youth has been physically abused. In addition to the new teens coming into the system, I have a number of youth who have been in the system for many years whose parents failed at reunification and are no longer in the picture. A third population is the youth coming from the juvenile justice court (called delinquency in many jurisdictions). These are the kids the juvenile justice judge has decided would be better served with child welfare as opposed to juvenile probation services. Most of the youth have one thing in common: they would rather be anywhere than in the dependency system.

My predecessor started a dependency girls court, a therapeutic court that would focus on the most at-risk young girls and give them a little extra attention. When I arrived, the program was in its infancy, with five girls participating. I expanded it to boys and changed the name to teen court. We now have 35 youth involved.

The teen comes in once every six to eight weeks for an off-the-record, informal hearing that lasts from 30 to 45 minutes. The parents are invited, but the reality is that with these youth, the parents are rarely around, involved, or interested. We literally sit around and chat, sometimes about really hard stuff. One of the attorneys observed, “It’s like sitting around the dining room table and just talking about what’s important to the kid—an experience they don’t really have in the group home.” During the hearing, I don’t make big legal decisions, but I will, for example, talk about why the youth wants to get her eyebrow pierced and what she thinks is fair for her to have to do to earn it. Raise all her Ds to Cs? No AWOLs for thirty days?

I tell the youth when they start teen court that I have three main goals for them: first, graduate from high school or get a GED; second, not get pregnant (or for the boys, not get a girl pregnant); and third, not get in trouble and end up in juvenile justice court. Beyond those basic goals, we talk about what the youth wants to talk about. Having a the authority figure of the judge listen, problem-solve with the teen, and positively support the teens needs and choices can be invaluable.

Teen court is voluntary and while we think the program is worthwhile because they keep coming back, the jury is still out. A doctoral student is currently evaluating teen court to determine its effectiveness. I devote two full afternoons each week to eight youth and many of the teens miss school to come to court; it is a big time commitment for all of us. I’m not sure if the objective measurements will be positive, that is, increased graduation rates, fewer AWOLs, etc. But I am fairly certain that the subjective analysis will show that these kids, having participated in teen court, will know that the “system” cares about them, that the judge knows them and that they had a chance to talk directly to the judge.

So many youth leave our system and report that nobody cared about them and that they had no say in their cases. I know that will not be the case for the teens in my teen court.

Author biography:  

Judge Shawna Schwarz received her bachelors and masters degrees from Stanford University and then went on to Santa Clara University for law school.

Judge Schwarz spent seven years as the directing attorney at Legal Advocates for Children & Youth before by being appointed commissioner of the Juvenile Dependency Court in Santa Clara County in December of 2001. She is currently a superior court judge for Santa Clara County. Her caseload has an emphasis on teenagers as well as children in long term foster care with little hope of ever returning home. She has a specialized teen court calendar in which at risk and struggling teens come to court for a 45 minute hearings in an informal setting to talk about what’s going on and problem solve with interested professionals.

In addition to her caseload, Judge Schwarz has created numerous cheat sheets and flow charts used by judges statewide. She also provides trainings on juvenile dependency, domestic violence, and restraining orders. She has trained over 1,000 social workers, community based organization staff and community members on the overlap of domestic violence and child maltreatment. Since January 2004 Judge Schwarz has provided training on the juvenile dependency court process for all the new CASA classes for the Child Advocates of Silicon Valley.

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