Thursday, August 28, 2008

Overstressed dependency courts need reform

Taking action for our foster children
Moreno, Carlos. San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 15, 2008.

Our state has been understandably preoccupied with the heat of wildfires and budget disputes this summer, but there's another crisis on the horizon - one that we can manage if we commit to taking decisive and bold action. This crisis concerns the well-being of children in foster care.

More specifically, it concerns the state of our juvenile dependency courts. Every one of the nearly 80,000 children in foster care in California comes before our dependency courts multiple times. Yet a two-year investigation by the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care found an overstressed and under-resourced court system, in which our most vulnerable children and families do not routinely get the attention and services we know they deserve.

This statewide commission, appointed by the chief justice in 2006, found that a number of factors contribute to this crisis. There are fewer than 150 full- and part-time judicial officers across the whole state, and full-time judicial officers have an average caseload of 1,000. It is no surprise that, although our juvenile court judges and commissioners are committed to making fair and impartial decisions about children and families, the participants in juvenile dependency court are not always afforded a meaningful opportunity to participate in their cases. Hearings are only 10 to 15 minutes on average, hardly enough time to get a full picture of a child's hopes or needs, to make critical decisions on services and follow-up. Hearing delays and continuances are routine.

Court attorneys who represent children and families in court have caseloads averaging 273; in a few counties, this rises to more than 600. Some children and parents do not even meet their attorneys until the day of their hearings, when they hear their names called in a crowded waiting room or hallway.

The Blue Ribbon Commission is issuing a series of recommendations today in an urgent call for reform of our juvenile dependency courts. Our recommendations fall into four categories:

Prevention and permanency, to help keep families together whenever it is safe and possible to do so. This includes returning children to their homes as soon as all court-mandated services have been met or finding placement in another permanent home when removal is necessary. It also means increasing efforts to find relatives and family members and addressing the thorny problem of the disproportionate numbers of African American and Native American children in foster care.

Court reforms, the heart and soul of our recommendations. Quite simply, we intend to change the way we do business in dependency court. The commission urges reasonable caseloads for judges, court attorneys and social workers. We want to ensure that children and parents have a meaningful voice in court. Judges make life-changing decisions about children's lives - where they will live and with whom. How can they rule in the best interest of each child if they are not able to hear the full story of each family?

Better collaboration between the courts and our partners. Many families who come before our bench are involved with more than one governmental agency at a time, yet these bureaucracies rarely communicate with one another. We must eliminate the barriers to sharing data and information that too often mean families receive different, even conflicting, direction and case plans. Lack of coordination between the courts and our partners means children sometimes remain in care longer than necessary.

Funding. The commission recognizes the fiscal realities in our state, and not all of our recommendations require new funding. But we believe no child or family should be denied critical services because of funding restraints. We call on the courts and our partner agencies to prioritize children in foster care in allocating services and resources. We urge reform of regulations that prevent agencies from pooling and coordinating funds for important services. And we call on the federal government to allow us to use federal foster care funds - currently restricted for use only after a child is removed from his or her family - for prevention services to support families in their homes.

In the end, we know that if our recommendations are successfully implemented, the state will save money. Fewer children will be placed in foster care or costly group homes, and the reforms will pay for themselves. But we have an obligation to act quickly. After all, time moves slowly in the eyes of a child. Removal from a parent is almost always a traumatic event, and even a month in a stranger's home can seem an eternity.

We believe the Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations are feasible and fiscally responsible. They can make a difference where it counts most - in the lives of children and their families.

Carlos R. Moreno, a state Supreme Court associate justice, is chair of the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care. He is also a foster parent.

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