Children’s Needs Should Be First and Foremost

Michelle Trulsrud

Judge Joyce Williams Warren

Michelle Trulsrud, Executive Director, Pulaski County CASA, AR (left)
Judge Joyce Williams Warren, 10th Division Juvenile Court Judge, AR (right)

Summary: The authors share best practices implemented by the court and CASA program to ensure the foster child's needs for safety, permanency and well-being are met.

From the courtroom bench to the CASA office, children’s needs are first and foremost in everyone’s mind. Although the philosophical underpinnings for the design of the child welfare system are to keep children safe from abuse and neglect, too often the children’s needs are completely overlooked or not met in a timely and appropriate manner. Although most of these oversights are not intentional, such results are always unacceptable. However, even with a system that is often overburdened, underfunded and understaffed, there are policies and best practices that can be implemented to ensure that children’s needs for safety, permanency and well-being are met.

Time goes by so quickly for adults; however, for a child removed from his or her family, friends, and schoolmates, time can creep by very slowly. As the adults in the child welfare system, we must continually remind ourselves that we should be working our cases on the child’s time schedule—not ours.

Permanency and overall well-being of the children we serve is vitally important. Foster care is not a goal! It is not a destination or a place for children to grow and develop! Foster care is meant to be temporary, providing for the safety and welfare of children who, through no fault of their own, have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. While in foster care, the courts and the child welfare system must ensure that necessary and appropriate services are provided to help rehabilitate the family so the child can return home or be placed in another permanent home as quickly as possible, within the time frames required by law. This includes making sure all the needs of the child are met during his or her time in foster care.

Efforts inside and outside the courtroom can make a big difference in reducing a child’s trauma associated with removal from the home and adjustment to foster care, with its additional problems. The 10th Division Juvenile Court holds timely and thorough hearings, including review and permanency hearings, with testimony and other evidence presented regarding the child’s placement; safety; physical and mental health; emotional needs; development; education; and visitation with parents, relatives, and siblings who are not placed with the child. The child is present, and, if age appropriate, provides testimony about his or her feelings, wants and needs.

At the adjudication hearing, the court orders the Division of Children and Family Services to file a copy of the child’s initial comprehensive developmental assessment, provide a copy to the attorneys and parties, and follow the recommendations of that assessment. The CASA program provides written reports and recommendations about the various components of the child’s well-being. The court makes specific findings about the child’s special needs and best interests, and whether those needs are being met, and issues orders that may include dates and deadlines for the agency to accomplish tasks that meet the child’s needs. The court reminds all parties that the clock is ticking; it reminds parents that they have a limited amount of time to remedy the cause(s) of the child’s removal from the home, and that their failure to do so can result in a determination that it is not in the child’s best interests to be returned to the home, which could result in termination of parental rights. This focus on permanency in a time frame viewed through the child’s eyes, not the eyes of the adults, keeps the focus on the child and the child’s needs. The court determines whether reasonable efforts have been made by the agency to provide the appropriate family services to meet the child’s needs and works towards securing an appropriate permanent home.

The 10th Division Juvenile Court has partnered with others involved in the child welfare system and has formed a Judicial Leadership Team, which is a collaborative effort to improve the way dependency-neglect cases are processed through the court. This team, which has breakfast meetings in the courtroom every other month, comprises agency attorneys, attorneys who represent parents, attorneys ad litem, agency caseworkers and supervisors, foster parents, CASA supervisors, therapists and a child welfare policy analyst. The team engages in trainings and honest discussions about challenges, triumphs, and goals. A collective effort is fostered among members to improve the quality of initial abuse and neglect assessment; case plan development and implementation; concurrent planning; casework services; and courtroom testimony.

As adults, we must put aside any differences and work in the best interest of the children as they move through the court. We must continue to think of—and implement—new and innovative ways to provide all the needed services for these children and their families, because a happy childhood lasts forever!


Author biographies:

Judge Joyce Williams Warren presides over juvenile and domestic relations cases as the 10th Division circuit judge in the 6th Judicial District of Arkansas. Previous positions include appointment as juvenile court judge in 1983 and to the Arkansas State Board of Law Examiners in 1986. Judge Warren was elected to state-level trail court leadership in AR in 1990, serving four terms.

Warren has served as chair of the Arkansas Supreme Court ad hoc Committee on Foster Care and Adoption since January 2007. She is a member of the Arkansas Home Team for the National Governors Association Policy Academy on Safely Reducing the Number of Children in Foster Care. Warren is the author of A Booklet for Parents, Guardians and Custodians in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases (2003).

In 2012, the National CASA Association named Judge Warren Judge of the Year. Judge Warren was profiled in the Fall 2012 National CASA Connection magazine. She explained why CASA volunteers are important to judges in a corresponding podcast.

Michelle Trulsrud is the executive director for Pulaski County CASA. Michelle was an early intervention and early childhood coordinator for Archild, Inc. In this position, Trulsrud managed and coordinated DDTCS/CHMS services for 120 children and implemented policies and procedures regarding children services for the organization. She has sat on the board for the Division of Child and Family Services, and is currently on the Remington College Advisory Board Child Abuse Committee that reports to the Child Abuse Commission, and is a member of the Sexual Abuse Management Team for Pulaski County Juvenile Court.

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