Thursday, August 28, 2008

15-minute hearings to decide living situations of vulnerable foster children

Foster children underserved by courts, report finds
A California commission recommends smaller caseloads for social workers, lawyers and judges serving the 80,000 kids in the system statewide

Therolf, Garrett. Los Angeles Times, Aug. 16, 2008.

California's 80,000 foster children -- nearly 27,000 in Los Angeles County -- are underserved by deeply stressed courts and government agencies, and the hearings that decide their living situations often last no more than 15 minutes, according to a report released Friday.

The report is the result of two years of work by a blue-ribbon commission established by California Chief Justice Ronald George and makes dozens of recommendations to the judicial system, the Legislature and the counties that operate the foster care system.

Key among the recommendations was a call to replace with judges the referees and commissioners who oversee dependency cases.

"This was not to put down referees or commissioners who have labored in those courts for a long time, but by using judges, it would indicate that the court considers this work to be at the top in terms of seriousness and importance," Carlos Moreno, commission chairman and a state Supreme Court associate justice, said in an interview.

The report also recommended smaller caseloads for all authorities involved, including social workers, attorneys and judges.

The entire juvenile court system has fewer than 150 full- and part-time judges and commissioners working on foster care, with caseloads averaging 1,000 each. Lawyers for these courts average 273 cases apiece -- in some counties 500 to 600 -- and often do not meet the children and parents they are representing until moments before hearings.

Jasmine Smith, a 20-year-old Inglewood resident in foster care, said in an interview, "I'm not usually able to say anything when we go to court. I usually speak with my lawyer for maybe five minutes just before the hearing. Nothing is taken care of because no one is prepared. It's always, 'Let's make another appointment.' "

Although Smith remains in foster care, many children are released from the system at 18. The commission recommended that the age for foster care assistance be extended in all cases to 21.

"I don't think any parent would allow a child to go into the world without any support at 18 years of age, and we shouldn't either," Moreno said. "There is a high moral and financial cost because so many of our foster children become homeless or incarcerated."

At a meeting of the California Judicial Council on Friday, the report's recommendations were unanimously endorsed, and Moreno predicted swift reforms within the court system.

The commission's other recommendations focused on preventing the need to take children from their parents; placing a new priority on dependency cases within the court system; improving coordination between the courts, attorneys and social service agencies; and providing more resources and money to the juvenile courts.

Moreno acknowledged that his commission's recommendations would be a hard sell in some cases this year as the state contends with a $15.2-billion budget deficit, but he said he remains hopeful.

"We emphasized recommendations that require no money at all -- it doesn't take more money for people to talk to each other more, for example -- but when it comes to the recommendations that do require additional funds we think we will find receptive ears," Moreno said. "Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and the governor have made foster kids a priority."

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