Technical Assistance Brief Supports Child and Youth Engagement in Court

Andrea KhouryAndrea Khoury, Director, ABA Youth at Risk Bar-Youth Empowerment Project, American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law

Summary: The author introduces the collaborative work of the American Bar Association and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges entitled “Seen, Heard, and Engaged: Children in Dependency Court Hearings.”

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The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) has long championed the issue of children and youth participating in dependency court hearings. On January 20, 2012, during the NCJFCJ Mid-Winter Meeting, the Board of Trustees passed the NCJFCJ Children in Court Policy Statement. To provide additional guidance on the policy, along with tools for effective implementation, NCJFCJ and the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law’s Bar-Youth Empowerment Project collaborated and developed a complementary technical assistance bulletin entitled Seen, Heard, and Engaged: Children in Dependency Court Hearings. It is designed to help judges and other professionals support meaningful engagement of children and youth in court.

Legal Framework

The technical assistance bulletin describes the federal and state laws most relevant to child and youth empowerment. Within the last few years, federal law has reflected changes in child welfare practice towards increased youth involvement. Youth and child welfare stakeholders report better outcomes and increased youth engagement when children and youth are actively involved in their case planning.

Good case planning includes appropriate judicial oversight. Federal law now requires procedural safeguards to be put in place to ensure judges consult with youth age-appropriately about their permanency plan at court hearings. As a result of this change, as well as of a growing recognition of the positive benefits of child and youth attendance in court, many courts have moved towards greater youth participation. However, practice is still very inconsistent, varying not only from state to state, but also from courtroom to courtroom. While some states have court rules or statutes that address child and youth attendance in court, discretion is largely left to the individual judge and other stakeholders as to when and how to include youth in court hearings. This policy puts forth a recommended best practice in dependency courts, and reflects the increasing momentum around the importance to all parties of child and youth attendance in court. In addition to the benefits to youth of empowerment and engagement in the process, judges report accessing better information for the court and increased accountability for all individuals involved.

Best Practices in Dependency Cases

Child and youth attendance in court reflects best practice. “Seen, Heard, and Engaged: Children in Dependency Court Hearings”  is consistent with NCJFCJ’s Resource Guidelines (547 KB PDF) and the policies of other child welfare national organizations, including the National Association of Counsel for Children and American Bar Association. Furthermore, NCJFCJ has also demonstrated on-the-ground success around child and youth involvement in court through a number of innovative model court programs, including the court in Los Angeles, CA.

The policy is only the first step to supporting court implementation of child and youth engagement in court.  “Seen, Heard, and Engaged: Children in Dependency Court Hearings” highlights best practices from around the country, including many of the tools and resources developed by the ABA. The following sections provide an overview of some of these implementation supports. The ABA also provides free training and technical assistance to jurisdictions on developing and implementing policies and protocols around effective child and youth engagement in court.

Judicial Considerations

Youth empowerment and youth investment are some of the main reasons to involve youth in their court hearings. Judges can also establish important relationships with young people and learn a lot about their lives when they take the opportunity to meet and interact with the children and youth whose cases come before them.

“Seen, Heard, and Engaged: Children in Dependency Court Hearings” discusses some of the common concerns about involving youth, such as harm to the child and logistical issues. Judges have developed creative ways to address these concerns so youth are meaningfully involved, without harm. Some courts set time-certain hearings to minimize waiting time for children, parents, and social workers. Some jurisdictions develop child-friendly guides to help youth be prepared for the court experience and interact with the judge. Most of all, the guide makes clear that, with judicial leadership, all potential barriers can be overcome.

Court Policy and Practice Recommendations

“Seen, Heard, and Engaged: Children in Dependency Court Hearings” provides judges a sample comprehensive outline of a youth-in-court judicial policy. Most states have minimal statutory and rule guidance, and it’s imperative that courts establish protocols and standards for child and youth involvement. These protocols include setting a presumption that children and youth will attend permanency planning hearings, laying out acceptable exceptions to this rule, and providing alternatives to full participation to ensure the children or youth are included even when they cannot be present. If they are not present for the court hearing, the judge should ask and document the reasons why. This demonstrates to the stakeholders that the judge places youth participation as a priority. 

Essential to any court policy on youth attendance in court is a protocol to inform children and youth about court hearings. Children around the country have reported that they had no knowledge that court hearings occurred in their cases. The brief discusses using child-friendly notices as a uniform, consistent way to inform children about the court hearings.

Finally, “Seen, Heard, and Engaged: Children in Dependency Court Hearings” reiterates NCJFCJ’s policy on child representation. Effective representation helps to ensure that children and youth receive notice of the hearing, are prepared before the hearing, are meaningfully engaged during the hearing, and properly are debriefed following the hearing. The bulletin describes ways a judge can ensure this effective representation.  

Additional Resources

Effective implementation of youth involvement in court will require system change. However, regardless of where a jurisdiction is on involving youth in court, there is always room for improvement. To support courts, the brief also includes sample tools including bench cards for judges with sample questions, broken down by age, and child-friendly court notices.

The ABA is available for training and technical assistance, and tailors the assistance to the needs of the jurisdiction. See the ABA website or contact Andrea Khoury for further information.

Author biography:  

Andrea Khoury, JD, is the director of the ABA Youth at Risk Bar-Youth Empowerment Project focusing on adolescent’s access to attorneys, children’s right to counsel, and youth involvement in court hearings. She is also an assistant director of child welfare for the National Child Welfare Resource Center on Legal and Judicial Issues. As part of her position she provides technical assistance to states on issues dealing with the Adoption and Safe Families Act, Child and Family Service Reviews and other child welfare legislation. Among other topics, she provides numerous trainings across the country on adolescent permanency, the role of the child’s representative, involving youth in dependency proceedings, and representing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth. She managed the writing, editing, and production of the ABA publication, Achieving Permanency for Adolescents in Foster Care: A Guide for Legal Professionals as well as authoring several chapters. She co-authored the ABA publication, Opening Doors for LGBTQ Youth in Foster Care: A Guide for Lawyers and Judges.  She has represented children in abuse and neglect cases for over 10 years.

 

 

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