oversight

Juvenile Courts: Reforms Aim to Better Serve Maltreated Children

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-01-11.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                 United States General Accounting Office

GAO              Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee
                 on Human Resources, Committee on
                 Ways and Means, House of
                 Representatives

January 1999
                 JUVENILE COURTS
                 Reforms Aim to Better
                 Serve Maltreated
                 Children




GAO/HEHS-99-13
      United States
GAO   General Accounting Office
      Washington, D.C. 20548

      Health, Education, and
      Human Services Division

      B-281326

      January 11, 1999

      The Honorable E. Clay Shaw, Jr.
      Chairman, Subcommittee on Human Resources
      Committee on Ways and Means
      House of Representatives

      Dear Mr. Chairman:

      Almost every day, courts that hear child welfare dependency cases1 across
      the country make critical decisions that affect the lives of the
      approximately 1 million children who are victims of child abuse and
      neglect each year, many of whom enter and remain in the foster care
      system for years. In this capacity, the courts—executing a variety of
      federal and state laws—play the central role in determining whether
      children will be removed from their homes; how long they will remain in
      the foster care system; and, ultimately, where the children will
      permanently reside. Over the years, the courts have struggled to balance
      their attempts to protect children from further harm with making timely
      decisions for their future.

      Many states and localities have begun reforming their court systems to
      address problems that contribute to children spending years of their
      childhood awaiting court decisions concerning where they will ultimately
      live. While some states have initiated change on their own, many began
      reform efforts as a result of the federal Court Improvement Program (CIP)
      authorized in the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1993. CIP provides grants
      to state courts to improve their handling of child maltreatment cases.
      Because of your concern over the courts’ performance in achieving timely
      permanent placements for children, you asked us to identify (1) the key
      problems in the juvenile dependency court system and (2) state and local
      responses to these problems. In conducting this work, we reviewed the
      literature on problems in the juvenile dependency court system, including
      CIP assessments of problems in specific states, and interviewed state and
      federal officials and experts on the dependency court process, such as
      officials at national court-related organizations, judges, and researchers.
      To obtain first-hand information on dependency court reform activities,
      we visited juvenile dependency courts in five locations—Santa Clara
      County, California; the Ninth Judicial Circuit in Florida, comprising
      Orange and Osceola counties; Cook County, Illinois; Judicial District 20 in

      1
       Throughout this report, these courts are referred to as “juvenile dependency courts.” Some states
      have special juvenile courts that are separate from adult courts. In other states, child welfare cases are
      heard in juvenile sessions of regular courts that handle all types of cases.



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                   North Carolina, comprising Anson, Richmond, Stanly, and Union counties;
                   and Hamilton County, Ohio. We chose these locations because experts at
                   the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) and the
                   American Bar Association (ABA) considered these locales to be
                   implementing significant reforms, or because CIP was a major impetus for
                   change there. We conducted our work between December 1997 and
                   October 1998 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing
                   standards. (A more detailed discussion of our scope and methodology
                   appears in app. I).


                   Serious systemic problems continue to plague the juvenile dependency
Results in Brief   court system. States we visited reported a lack of cooperation between the
                   courts and child welfare agencies as well as difficult personnel and data
                   management issues that jeopardize the courts’ ability to ensure that a
                   child’s stay in the foster care system is as brief as possible and that the
                   permanent placement decided upon is in the best overall interest of the
                   child. Despite their shared involvement in the child welfare system, courts
                   and child welfare agencies often do not work well together. For example,
                   some judges mistrust the judgments of caseworkers and routinely order
                   additional clinical assessments to compensate for what the judges
                   perceive as professional inadequacies. In addition, courts face numerous
                   difficulties, including increased caseloads, short tenures for judges and
                   attorneys assigned to juvenile dependency courts, insufficient training of
                   judges and attorneys in child welfare law and concepts, and information
                   systems that do not adequately track the progress of individual cases or
                   monitor the courts’ compliance with statutory time frames for achieving
                   permanent placements.

                   In response to these problems, some states have initiated court reforms
                   that they believe reduce the length of time children spend in foster care
                   and improve the quality of the decisions made by the courts. These
                   reforms generally fall into two categories. Reforms of the first type, which
                   are designed to improve the overall operation and infrastructure of the
                   courts, include convening multidisciplinary advisory committees to
                   resolve differences that exist between the courts and the organizations
                   involved in court proceedings as well as developing juvenile dependency
                   court information systems. The second type of reform is focused on
                   improving the quality of decision-making on individual cases. These
                   reforms include holding mediation sessions in which all relevant parties
                   meet to resolve issues in dispute in a nonadversarial setting outside the
                   courtroom, as well as increasing the time allotted for specific hearings.



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                          Regardless of the nature of the reform, state and local officials at the sites
                          we visited identified three ingredients that successful reform efforts have
                          in common. These essential reform components are the presence of
                          judicial leadership and collaboration among court participants, the
                          availability of timely information on case processing performance, and the
                          availability of financial resources to initiate and sustain reforms. As the
                          impact of the reforms is considered, one important caveat should be kept
                          in mind: While states and localities believe they have made progress in
                          addressing problems, few results are documented. To determine and
                          measure the effects of reform projects, and to institutionalize successful
                          initiatives, courts will need sound evaluation strategies.


                          The child welfare system—composed mainly of state and local child
Background                welfare agencies and juvenile dependency courts—is supported by a
                          complex mix of people and programs. Approximately 1 million children
                          are the victims of abuse and neglect by their parents or caregivers each
                          year, and each participant in the system plays a role in ensuring that
                          maltreatment cases are resolved expeditiously while taking into account
                          the best interests of the child.2 A natural tension exists between the
                          requirement to provide quality decisions and the need to ensure the
                          timeliness of those decisions. While courts must take time to preserve the
                          integrity of their decisions by examining all the facts, they must also
                          consider the child’s sense of time and the serious emotional consequences
                          that a child who waits months or sometimes years for a permanent home
                          can experience.


Courts Play an Expanded   The child welfare system involves many participants. Child welfare
and Central Role in the   caseworkers receive and investigate reports of suspected maltreatment
Child Welfare System      and recommend and locate appropriate social services. Private service
                          providers, such as mental health professionals, work with these
                          caseworkers to identify a family’s difficulties and supply needed help and
                          services. Juvenile dependency courts rely on information from
                          caseworkers, service providers, and others to reach decisions on cases
                          presented to the courts. Court-appointed special advocates (CASA),
                          guardians ad litem, or both are often appointed by the court to represent




                          2
                           The term “maltreatment” refers to child abuse and neglect. Many types of abuse (such as physical,
                          sexual, or emotional) and neglect (such as physical, educational, medical, or lack of supervision) can
                          occur.



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the child’s best interests.3 Some attorneys—such as public
defenders—provide legal representation for indigent parents who are
suspected of maltreating their children, while others—such as state or
county attorneys—provide legal representation for child welfare agencies
in presenting the facts and recommendations of the cases. Finally, the
juvenile dependency court judge distills the facts and information
presented about a case and decides whether a child should be placed in
the foster care system, how long the child will remain outside the home if
removed, and where the child will ultimately reside.

In 1980, the Congress enacted the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare
Act (P.L. 96-272). The primary goals of the act were to prevent the
unnecessary separation of children from their families, improve the quality
of care and services for vulnerable children and their families, and ensure
that children did not languish in foster care. The act placed major new
responsibilities on the courts to oversee child welfare cases more
rigorously than before and, as a result, the number of hearings expanded
dramatically. Unlike other cases, such as those dealing with criminal
activities, child maltreatment cases deal with ongoing and changing
conditions. As a result, seven kinds of hearings may occur in child welfare
cases: (1) preliminary protective hearing, (2) adjudication hearing,
(3) disposition hearing, (4) review hearing, (5) permanency planning
hearing, (6) termination of parental rights hearing, and (7) adoption
hearing (see table 1).




3
CASAs, usually volunteers, are trained to provide assistance to the court and to oversee a child’s case.
Guardians ad litem are attorneys appointed to represent children in maltreatment proceedings.



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Table 1: Hearings Held for Child
Maltreatment Cases                 Hearing type                Purpose
                                   Preliminary protective To decide whether or not the child can be immediately and safely
                                   hearing                returned home while the trial on the alleged maltreatment is
                                                          pending. In most states, this hearing is held within 1 to 3 working
                                                          days after a child is removed from the home. Recommended time
                                                          allocation: 60 minutes.
                                   Adjudication hearing        To determine if allegations of abuse or neglect are sustained by
                                                               the evidence presented and are legally sufficient to support state
                                                               intervention on behalf of the child. The adjudication hearing
                                                               should be completed no later than 60 days after a child is
                                                               removed from the home. Recommended minimum time
                                                               allocation: 30 minutes.
                                   Disposition hearing         To decide who will have custody and control of the child and to
                                                               review the reasonable efforts made to prevent removal of the
                                                               child from the home. This hearing should be completed within 30
                                                               days of the adjudication hearing. Recommended minimum time
                                                               allocation: 30 minutes.
                                   Review hearings             To periodically review case progress to ensure children spend
                                                               the least possible time in temporary placement and to modify the
                                                               family’s case plan, as necessary. Federal law requires these
                                                               hearings to be held at least every 6 months. Recommended time
                                                               allocation: 30 minutes.
                                   Permanency planning To decide the permanent placement of a child, such as returning
                                   hearing             home or being placed for adoption. Federal law enacted in 1997
                                                       now requires this hearing to be held no later than 12 months from
                                                       the time a child is considered to have entered foster care.a
                                                       Recommended time allocation: 60 minutes.
                                   Termination of          To end the rights of the parents to visit, communicate with, and
                                   parental rights hearing obtain information about the child or to ever regain custody. This
                                                           hearing should be initiated whenever there is strong evidence
                                                           that a child will never be able to safely be placed with his or her
                                                           parents and that adoption is in the child’s best interests.
                                                           Recommended minimum time allocation: 60 minutes.
                                   Adoption hearing            To build a new legal relationship between the child and the
                                                               individuals who are to become the child’s adoptive parents.
                                                               Courts should make special efforts to ensure adoptions are
                                                               concluded without undue delay once parental rights are
                                                               terminated. Recommended minimum time allocation: 30 minutes.
                                   a
                                    The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 changed the definition of when a child is considered
                                   to have entered foster care from that of previous laws. It considers a child to have entered care
                                   on the earlier of (1) the date of the first judicial finding that the child has been subjected to abuse
                                   or neglect or (2) 60 days after the date on which the child is removed from the home.

                                   Source: NCJFCJ, Resource Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Child Abuse and Neglect
                                   Cases (Reno, Nev.: NCJFCJ, 1995) and the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997.



                                   The preliminary protective hearing, the first hearing in a juvenile abuse or
                                   neglect case, occurs either immediately before or after a child is removed




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                           from the home in an emergency.4 The main purpose of this hearing is to
                           decide, on the basis of an assessment of risks and dangers to the child,
                           whether or not the child can be immediately and safely returned home
                           while the trial on the alleged maltreatment is pending.5 During this
                           hearing, the court determines if the child welfare agency made reasonable
                           efforts to preserve the family.6 During the adjudication hearing, the judge
                           determines if allegations of abuse or neglect are sustained by the evidence
                           and, if so, are legally sufficient to support state intervention on behalf of
                           the child. If the allegations are sustained, the court proceeds to the
                           disposition hearing, where the reasonable efforts that were made to
                           prevent the child’s removal from the home are again discussed and
                           decisions concerning who will have custody and control of the child are
                           made. Review hearings are then held periodically in accordance with
                           federal and state laws to ensure that children spend as short a time as
                           possible in temporary placement and to modify the case plan for family
                           services as necessary. The permanency planning hearing is a special type
                           of court proceeding designed to reach a decision concerning the
                           permanent placement of the child. Possible permanent placements include
                           the child’s return home and the child’s adoption. Choosing adoption
                           necessitates holding a termination of parental rights hearing to end the
                           rights of the parents to visit, communicate with, and obtain information
                           about the child or to ever regain custody. Finally, the adoption hearing
                           builds a new legal relationship between the child and the individuals who
                           are to become the child’s adoptive parents.


Federal Government         In 1980, the same year the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act was
Continues to Monitor and   enacted, in part, to improve judicial consideration of child maltreatment
Assist Juvenile            cases, NCJFCJ established the Permanency Planning Project for
                           Children—primarily with private funding—that provided limited training
Dependency Courts          and technical assistance to courts. A separate grant from the Edna


                           4
                            All states have laws that determine the allowable time frame within which to hold the preliminary
                           protective hearing. In most states, this hearing must occur within 1 to 3 judicial working days after the
                           child is removed from the home.
                           5
                            Although it is not conducted in many courts, a pretrial conference may be held. Pretrial conferences
                           are designed to promote case resolution by providing an informal forum for settlement negotiations. If
                           the parties can agree that the child has been maltreated, further time-consuming court proceedings
                           become unnecessary. Case resolution agreements must be properly drafted to create an adequate
                           record for future court involvement.
                           6
                            P.L. 96-272 requires that “reasonable efforts” be made to prevent or eliminate the need for removal of
                           a child from the home and to reunify the family if the child is removed. The requirement is designed to
                           ensure that families are provided with services to prevent their disruption and to respond to the
                           problems of unnecessary disruption of families and children remaining in foster care for long periods
                           of time. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, however, provides that reasonable efforts are not
                           required in certain cases, such as when the court has determined that the parent has subjected the
                           child to aggravated circumstances or the parent has murdered another of his or her children.
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McConnell Clark Foundation allowed NCJFCJ to establish model
jurisdictions in 14 states to improve the implementation of reasonable
efforts to reunite children with their families. The success of these
privately funded initiatives helped prompt the Department of Health and
Human Services (HHS) to provide funds to NCJFCJ in 1983 to expand these
model court efforts to three additional states. In 1984, the Department of
Justice (DOJ) provided the first phase of funding to establish state
permanency planning task forces and to support interdisciplinary training
and technical assistance for improving juvenile court systems. DOJ
provided additional funding between 1992 and 1997, for a total of
$4.25 million. Approximately $1.5 million was used to develop a document
to set forth the elements of a high-quality judicial process in child
maltreatment cases, including the essential elements of properly
conducted court hearings and the requirements of juvenile and family
courts in fulfilling the role given them by federal and state laws. The
resulting Resource Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Child Abuse
and Neglect Cases was issued in 1995 and endorsed by the ABA and the
Conference of Chief Justices. The remaining funds are being used to
support model court initiatives in 17 locations to improve court practice in
child maltreatment cases.

Because of perceptions that problems were still present in juvenile
dependency courts, the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1993 authorized
funds for CIP to be administered by HHS. The act set aside
$35 million—$5 million for fiscal year 1995 and $10 million for each of
fiscal years 1996, 1997, and 1998—in entitlement grants for state courts to
help them perform their role in making decisions about families and
children at risk. The first year of CIP funds was to be used to conduct
assessments of state foster care and adoption laws and judicial processes
and to develop a plan for improvements. Funding in subsequent years was
targeted for implementing improvements according to the plan. CIP funding
was awarded to 48 states7 and the District of Columbia; 42 states and the
District of Columbia have completed the required assessment, and 46
states and the District of Columbia have begun implementing various
reform activities. These reforms generally affect the quality and content of
hearings; legal representation of parties such as children and parents;
timeliness of decisions; notice to and participation of parties in court
proceedings; treatment of parties; quality and professionalism of judges
and other judicial officers; staffing of courts in child protection cases; use
of technology; training or education of judges and court staff; and state
legislation, court rules, forms, or court-related policies.

7
 Idaho and Wyoming have not yet applied for CIP funds.



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Recent Legislation Has   Just as the 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act sought to
Created New              improve the way child maltreatment cases were handled by increasing
Requirements for the     judicial oversight, the Congress enacted the Adoption and Safe Families
                         Act (ASFA) in November 1997 in part as a response to the fact that more
Courts                   children were entering the foster care system each year than were exiting.
                         The act firmly established safety, permanency, and child well-being as the
                         national goals for children in the child welfare system. Many of the act’s
                         provisions exert new pressure on the courts to move cases more quickly
                         and affect how the courts conduct child maltreatment proceedings. For
                         example, states are now required to file a court petition to terminate
                         parental rights if the child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent
                         22 months. Although some exceptions to this provision exist, a preliminary
                         HHS estimate is that approximately 177,600, or 34 percent, of the children
                         in foster care as of March 31, 1998, will fall into this new category. Some
                         practitioners believe this provision will increase the number of
                         termination of parental rights hearings that must be held as well as the
                         overall court calendar time needed, since these hearings can take several
                         days to conduct. Further, the permanency planning hearing—previously
                         held about 18 months after the child’s original placement in foster
                         care—must now take place no later than 12 months after the child is
                         considered to have entered foster care. In addition, ASFA reauthorized
                         funding for CIP for an additional 3 years, providing $10 million for each of
                         fiscal years 1999, 2000, and 2001.


                         Juvenile dependency courts are fraught with systemic problems that affect
Juvenile Dependency      their ability to make sound decisions in a timely manner regarding where a
Courts Face Serious      child will ultimately reside. We found two key problems to varying degrees
Problems That            in all five states we visited: (1) a lack of cooperative working relationships
                         between the courts and other participants involved in the child welfare
Hamper Effective         system, including conflict over how courts and child welfare agencies
Decision-Making          resolve issues, and (2) difficult personnel and data management issues,
                         such as inadequate numbers of judges and attorneys to handle large
                         caseloads; frequent turnover among judges and attorneys; inadequate
                         training of judges and attorneys in the area of child welfare; and a lack of
                         efficient, automated information systems for tracking case data. Together,
                         these problems hinder the courts’ ability to produce decisions within time
                         frames that meet both the needs of children as well as the requirements of
                         child welfare legislation.




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Courts and Agencies Lack   The courts and child welfare agencies each play key roles in the child
Cooperative Working        welfare system. Despite this shared involvement in handling child
Relationships              maltreatment cases, the courts and agencies often do not work well
                           together. Experts we interviewed confirmed a lack of effective working
                           relationships among the courts and other participants in the system, and
                           local officials at all five sites we visited stated that there was a lack of
                           cooperation before reform efforts were instituted and that it may still exist
                           to some extent. This lack of effective working relationships is illustrated in
                           a variety of ways.

                           For example, the CIP assessment of Cook County, Illinois, found a
                           pervasive mistrust among officers of the court directed toward the
                           caseworkers assigned to addressing the needs of children and their
                           families. Judicial officers8 indicated that because children’s cases may be
                           managed by several caseworkers in different agencies, the court is left
                           with the sense that only the court is considering the interests of the entire
                           family. The assessment further reported that because judges do not trust
                           the judgments of caseworkers, they routinely order additional clinical
                           tests and assessments by experts and may require frequent progress
                           reports and case status hearings to ensure that caseworkers are
                           conducting their assigned tasks appropriately, thus lengthening the court
                           process for resolving cases.

                           In addition, relationships among the participants can at times be
                           adversarial. According to the Illinois CIP assessment, the many attorneys
                           involved in dependency cases may focus on winning those cases rather
                           than on obtaining services for the family. The attorneys, each representing
                           a different party to the proceedings, may have separate agendas. For
                           example, a district attorney in California representing children in the
                           juvenile dependency court commented that her office may recommend a
                           different course of action for a child than the one proposed by the child
                           welfare agency. While the social worker oversees the plan for the entire
                           family, the attorney approaches the case from the child’s perspective only.
                           In addition, CIP and court officials as well as an attorney for the child
                           welfare agency in Illinois pointed out that the courts and child welfare
                           agencies have frequently blamed each other for failures of the child
                           welfare system, such as child deaths. The adversarial nature of litigation
                           can make the process of finding permanent homes for abused and
                           neglected children less efficient. For example, attorneys representing the

                           8
                            Judicial officers include judges as well as a variety of officials who are appointed to hear cases and
                           make decisions. Magistrates, commissioners, hearing officers, and referees are examples of these
                           other judicial officers. Typically, the decisions made by these other officials are reviewed by the judge
                           who appointed them.



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                        child welfare agency and children in North Carolina’s District 20 told us
                        that when key participants in the system do not work together at the
                        beginning of a case to develop plans for solving the family’s problems, the
                        delivery of social services can be delayed. This delay, in turn, can lengthen
                        the time it takes to find a permanent home for a child or to return a child
                        to his or her biological parents.


Courts Face Difficult   A number of personnel and data management problems in the juvenile
Personnel and Data      dependency courts also hamper the process of finding permanent homes
Management Issues       for abused and neglected children. First, the courts in many jurisdictions
                        do not have a sufficient number of judges and attorneys to handle the large
                        number of child maltreatment cases in an expeditious manner. Second,
                        some juvenile dependency courts experience frequent turnover of both
                        judges and attorneys, which reduces the level of expertise they bring to
                        the dependency process. Third, the courts may not always ensure that
                        judges and attorneys have received training in the legal and nonlegal
                        aspects of child maltreatment before they begin working in the
                        dependency field. Last, the courts do not have adequate automated
                        information systems in place to monitor their dependency caseloads.

Personnel Issues        Child welfare proceedings can be long and complex. According to experts
                        in the juvenile dependency court process, to complete the demanding
                        work of the court, there must be enough judicial officers and attorneys
                        who possess sufficient expertise to ensure that children are protected and
                        placed in a permanent home in a timely fashion. Further, experts such as
                        those at NCJFCJ also report that judicial and attorney caseloads have risen
                        at the same time that court demands, such as the number of hearings and
                        parties involved in child maltreatment cases, have increased. The problem
                        of large caseloads appeared in the CIP assessments of three of the states
                        we visited and was confirmed by local officials at four of the five local
                        sites we visited. Although formal caseload size standards do not exist, two
                        juvenile court jurisdictions—Hamilton County, Ohio, and Kent County,
                        Michigan—are recognized by experts and cited by ABA as successful courts
                        with appropriate judicial caseloads.9,10 Hamilton County judicial officers
                        each handled an average of 239 child protection cases in 1991, while Kent
                        County judicial officers each handled approximately 181 cases in 1993.
                        Court caseloads in four of the five sites we visited, however, often exceed

                        9
                          ABA, Judicial Implementation of Permanency Planning Reform: One Court That Works (Washington,
                        D.C.: ABA, 1992).
                        10
                         ABA, A Second Court That Works: Judicial Implementation of Permanency Planning Reforms
                        (Washington, D.C.: ABA, 1995).



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these suggested levels.11 For example, the presiding judge at one site we
visited handles approximately 1,000 cases per year. As part of its court
improvement program, California studied judicial resources and found
that many counties needed additional judges to meet the ratios in effect in
Hamilton County, Ohio. In Los Angeles County, for example, about 53
additional judges were needed, while San Bernardino County needed
about 12 more judges.

Similarly, local officials at the sites we visited reported excessive attorney
caseloads, and experts confirmed that caseloads for attorneys in many
jurisdictions are unreasonably large. According to the ABA, a caseload of 40
to 50 active cases for a full-time staff attorney for a child welfare agency is
reasonable.12 By comparison, attorneys in the Cook County, Illinois, Public
Defender’s Office have an average of 650 juvenile dependency cases at any
given time, while the state’s attorneys each have about 1,000 such cases on
average. In Santa Clara County, California, the Deputy District Attorney,
whose office represents children, reported average attorney caseloads of
600. Similarly, a managing attorney for the child welfare agency at that site
reported that 13 attorneys handle 4,000 child maltreatment cases at any
given time. California’s CIP assessment showed that large caseloads are
also a problem in other locations in the state. Of attorneys in six counties
responding to a survey as part of the California CIP assessment, half had
caseloads of more than 150, 25 percent had 250 or more, and the
10 percent with the largest caseloads had 600 or more.

Experts in the juvenile dependency court process note that large
caseloads result in hearings that may not be substantive and may be
frequently delayed or continued,13 ultimately contributing to the courts’
failure to meet statutory deadlines for moving children out of the foster
care system. For example, although NCJFCJ’s Resource Guidelines suggest
hearing times for the various hearings in the dependency process, CIP
assessments from California, Florida, and Illinois confirmed that hearings
often do not meet these minimum time frames. The guidelines indicate
that preliminary protective hearings should last about 1 hour, but Florida
reported that 56 percent of its preliminary protective hearings lasted only
4 minutes. In Cook County, Illinois, the average preliminary protective

11
  Court caseloads in three of the five sites comprise only dependency-related cases. Court caseloads in
the fourth site comprise a mix of dependency, civil, and criminal cases because the judges in this
location hear cases in each of these categories.
12
  Segal, E.C., Evaluating and Improving Child Welfare Agency Legal Representation: Self-Assessment
Instrument and Commentary (Washington, D.C.: ABA National Legal Resource Center for Child
Advocacy and Protection, 1990).
13
  When a continuance is granted by the judge, the case is rescheduled for another day.



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hearing lasted about 16 minutes. Similarly, CIP assessments in four states
cite continuances as problematic. For instance, the Cook County, Illinois,
assessment indicates that the most observable manifestation of delay in
the court is the continuance. Adjudication and permanency hearings had
the highest rates of continuances, at 54 and 51 percent, respectively.
Permanency hearings were continued an average of 75 days, with a range
of 8 to 203 days. Similarly, Florida’s assessment noted that in the 882 court
observations conducted, all of the 169 requests for continuances were
granted. Both Florida and Illinois link such continuances to the courts’
inability to meet statutory time frames for finding permanent homes for
children. Florida’s assessment noted that missed deadlines between the
preliminary protective hearing and termination of parental rights translate,
on average, to nearly an additional year that a child spends in the
dependency process. Illinois’ assessment found that 90 percent of children
who entered foster care from 1993 through 1994 were still in
nonpermanent placements in 1996.

Judicial and attorney turnover is another problem. Turnover impairs
expertise in child welfare issues, according to experts such as those at the
National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ) and the ABA. For example, the
ABA testified before the Congress in 1997 that juvenile dependency courts
are confronted with frequent rotation of judges who may or may not have
expertise or an interest in child welfare law. Similarly, CIP officials in three
of the five states we visited said that judicial rotation is a problem. For
instance, a Florida CIP official told us that some judges may be rotated out
of juvenile dependency court after only 6 months, with the result that
many dependency cases are heard by judges who are unfamiliar with
dependency law. California CIP officials stated that judicial officers change
constantly—for example, interested and dedicated judges may be rotated
out after 1 year on the bench. The frequent rotation of judges can
contribute to decisions that are not based on a thorough knowledge of the
individual child and family and can result in unnecessary delays in
reaching decisions about permanent homes, according to experts in the
dependency court process. For example, one expert noted that in some
cases a series of judges makes sequential decisions about the child—that
is, one judge removes the child from the home, another oversees efforts to
reunify the family, another handles permanency planning, and yet another
terminates parental rights. These dependency court experts also
commented that a succession of judges unfamiliar with the family and the
child increases the potential that key facts about the case will be
overlooked.




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Juvenile dependency courts also experience high rates of attorney
turnover, according to experts in the dependency court process and local
officials in four of the five sites we visited. In its review of 25 state CIP
assessments and in a related study on attorney representation, NCJFCJ
found that frequent rotation of prosecutors and agency attorneys is a
problem.14,15 California’s CIP assessment found rapid rotation of some
county public defenders and noted that parents should not have to adjust
to two to four attorneys over the life of a case. Local attorneys in Illinois,
North Carolina, and Ohio confirmed that rapid turnover occurs among
various attorneys in the dependency arena. Experts agree that the parties
to child maltreatment proceedings need consistent legal representation to
ensure that the information these attorneys supply to the judge is
complete and thorough. According to one expert, children, in particular,
need a single representative to retain their history, including the reasons
they entered the child welfare system.

Limited or underutilized child welfare-related training opportunities
further affect the level of skill and experience the participants bring to the
courtroom. According to experts, such as officials at HHS and NCJJ, and CIP
assessment reports, some judges and attorneys lack training specific to
child welfare law, as well as to other family-related topics, such as child
development and the dynamics of child maltreatment. For example, HHS’
CIP “Program Instruction,” a document that describes the program and its
requirements, cites insufficient training in child welfare issues for many
participants in the system as a common problem. Additionally, the
principal finding of a national research project conducted by NCJFCJ was
the need for improved training in both the legal and nonlegal aspects of
dependency cases.16 The CIP assessment of Cook County, Illinois, noted
that attorneys are poorly trained to handle the types of social service
issues inherent in child maltreatment cases. The North Carolina
assessment noted that judges are not subject to any specific training
requirements other than possessing a law degree. Similarly, attorneys in
Illinois, North Carolina, and Ohio; judges in Florida and Ohio; and local
child welfare officials in California and Ohio stated that dependency court
participants need further training. For example, a judge in Florida


14
 NCJFCJ, Technical Assistance Bulletin: Summaries of Twenty-Five State Court Improvement
Assessment Reports (Reno, Nev.: Permanency Planning for Children Project, NCJFCJ, Mar. 1998).
15
 NCJFCJ, Technical Assistance Bulletin: Child Abuse and Neglect Cases: Representation as a Critical
Component of Effective Practice (Reno, Nev.: Permanency Planning for Children Project, NCJFCJ,
Mar. 1998).
16
 NCJFCJ, Child Abuse and Neglect Cases: Representation as a Critical Component of Effective
Practice.



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                         remarked that juvenile dependency court judges must understand the
                         dynamics of child maltreatment cases and have a grasp of child
                         psychology. According to this official, many judges have preconceived
                         notions about child sexual abuse that are changed after the judges take a
                         class on the impact of child maltreatment.

                         Experts in the dependency court process agree that a lack of training and
                         experience in dependency law can also reduce the quality of decisions in
                         child maltreatment cases. According to these experts, this lack of training
                         and experience inhibits judicial officers’ ability to gather enough facts
                         about a case to make fully informed decisions about the child and family.
                         Similarly, experts indicate that hearing effectiveness is negatively affected
                         if attorneys are not adequately trained to handle the special demands of
                         child maltreatment cases and to expedite the cases.

Data Management Issues   The lack of adequate automated information systems to effectively
                         manage child maltreatment case flow is a nationwide problem, according
                         to NCJFCJ. Information about individual cases is critical for diagnosing and
                         responding to the problems of the children and families that come before
                         the court. For example, courts need data such as the name, age, and
                         ethnicity of the child; the type of alleged abuse or neglect; dates of
                         scheduled court hearings; and information on nondependency cases
                         involving the same family, including domestic violence, divorce, or
                         criminal actions. The California CIP assessment reported that California
                         lacks statewide standards for information systems and that, although the
                         courts studied have information systems in place, none are well-designed
                         for tracking dependency cases, with the possible exception of the Los
                         Angeles system. North Carolina’s assessment indicated that most of the
                         information necessary to measure court performance is available, but it is
                         dispersed among the guardians ad litem, the Administrative Office of the
                         Courts, and the child welfare agency. Furthermore, many juvenile courts
                         in North Carolina completely lack automated systems. Fewer than half of
                         the juvenile court clerks in 40 North Carolina counties surveyed reported
                         using a computer for any purpose, and none reported using any court
                         management software or preparing case management information reports
                         for use at the district or county level. In addition, all 25 state CIP
                         assessments reviewed by NCJFCJ cited the need for improved data systems
                         in juvenile dependency courts.17

                         The lack of effective information systems not only affects the courts’
                         ability to reach decisions about permanent homes for children but may

                         17
                           NCJFCJ, Summaries of Twenty-Five State Court Improvement Assessment Reports, p. 17.



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                       also lead to other serious consequences. Experts in the dependency court
                       process indicate that without automated data systems that track key
                       events in the court process, courts may not be able to reliably follow the
                       progress of individual cases through the system and, as a result, may miss
                       statutory deadlines for making permanency decisions. Furthermore,
                       dependency courts may be unable to track civil or criminal cases in other
                       courts within the jurisdiction or in other jurisdictions or simply to share
                       information between courts. For example, a juvenile dependency court
                       judge in California related an incident in which he gave custody of a child
                       to one of the parents. However, because the different courts do not share
                       case information, this judge did not know the details of the parents’
                       divorce suit pending in another court. As a consequence, the other parent’s
                       attorney was able to change the terms of the custody arrangement during
                       divorce proceedings and essentially overturn the juvenile dependency
                       court decision. A new juvenile court hearing became necessary to resolve
                       the conflicting decisions. More serious consequences are also possible.
                       According to a report on information management in the Cook County,
                       Illinois, juvenile court,18 the presence of an automated information system
                       that maintained critical case information in a usable format might have
                       made a significant difference in a prominent case involving the death of a
                       child. The report said that, in this case, important information was
                       amassed only in hard copy, and caseload demands prevented the judge
                       and attorneys from becoming familiar with essential facts. The judge who
                       last heard the case had no prior experience with the family and relied on
                       the assurances of others regarding necessary actions. While many factors
                       contributed to the child’s death, an independent committee identified a
                       collective failure to provide the court with crucial information as a major
                       systemic failing and concluded that information must be more timely and
                       better disseminated.


                       States we visited have implemented a variety of reforms to address some
State and Local        of the problems that have hindered the courts’ ability to quickly resolve
Reforms Seek to        dependency cases. These reforms can be divided into two categories:
Improve Quality and    those that seek to improve the overall operation and infrastructure of the
                       courts, such as convening multidisciplinary advisory committees and
Timeliness of          developing automated information systems, and those that target
Decisions, but         improving decision-making in individual cases, primarily by using
                       information-gathering and dispute-resolution techniques in addition to
Evaluation Is Needed   formal court hearings. Regardless of the methods chosen to change the

                       18
                        Children and Family Justice Center, Northwestern University School of Law, Information
                       Management in the Juvenile Court of Cook County (Chicago, Ill.: Northwestern University School of
                       Law, Jan. 1995), p. 2.



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                        way juvenile dependency courts handle child maltreatment cases, state
                        and local officials identified three components essential to instituting and
                        sustaining reforms over time. Although some progress in reducing
                        caseloads and shortening case processing times has been noted since
                        reform efforts began, most locations are just beginning to evaluate and
                        document results. As a result, states and localities currently do not know
                        which interventions have improved their courts and which have not.


Many Reforms Seek to    To improve cooperation between the courts and agencies, states and
Improve Working         localities we visited convened multidisciplinary advisory committees to
Relationships and the   (1) work on resolving turf battles, (2) dispel the mistrust among system
                        participants, and (3) develop and implement other reforms. At the state
Availability of Court   level, all five states convened multidisciplinary CIP advisory committees,
Process Information     typically including representatives from key participant groups, such as
                        child welfare agencies, CASAs, the state bar, judges, state attorneys, and
                        other advocates. The advisory committees planned and oversaw the CIP
                        assessment process, analyzed the results, and jointly developed an action
                        plan to implement reforms. According to CIP officials, the value and
                        benefits derived from these committees far exceed expectations, given the
                        small size of the CIP state grants. CIP officials at all sites credited the
                        program with providing the impetus to assemble a statewide group of key
                        individuals to consider court reform, adding that the committees
                        represented the first time system participants were talking and working
                        together statewide. According to these officials, this unifying force has
                        proven invaluable in initiating and institutionalizing reforms.

                        Similarly, the Cook County, Illinois, juvenile court convened local advisory
                        committees to work on local issues. One such committee, the Table of
                        Five, which consists of the presiding judge and the heads of the child
                        welfare agency and the Offices of the Public Guardian, State’s Attorney,
                        and Public Defender, meets to discuss systemic problems and the pressing
                        issues surrounding the dependency court. In addition, Table of Five
                        members work to resolve turf battles, to dispel fear and mistrust, and to
                        model the right behavior for their employees. Cook County’s Child
                        Protection Advisory Group, composed of 32 individuals representing all
                        offices of the court, the child welfare agency, private social service
                        agencies, legal service providers, advocacy groups, and universities, is
                        charged with advising the presiding judge on all matters relating to
                        improving the court’s Child Protection Division. The Group is divided into
                        subcommittees that focus on various issues, such as alternatives to court




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intervention, making decisions in the best interests of the child, and
terminating parental rights.

Multidisciplinary conferences and training sessions are used in all five
states we visited to impart information to juvenile dependency court
participants on child welfare concepts and court priorities and goals, to
build relationships, and to cross-train to learn each others’ roles in the
child welfare system. According to CIP and court staff in these states,
understanding each others’ roles and identifying common goals have
helped reduce the adversarial environment of the court. California’s CIP
convened a December 1997 Beyond the Bench Conference, for example, to
enhance collaboration among all participants and to cover court
improvement-related topics, such as collaborative ways to improve child
protection, establishing dependency mediation programs, ensuring quality
in court-appointed attorney representation, and addressing child sexual
abuse. The conference also served as the kick-off activity for CIP, whose
staff encouraged each county’s participants to brainstorm as a team on
needed court improvements. North Carolina’s District 20—the state’s CIP
pilot site comprising four rural counties—initiated CIP with a joint meeting
of key child welfare system participants, such as county social service
directors, mental health directors, and guardian ad litem administrators.
Monthly training sessions allow court participants to take part in making
reform decisions. The four counties host the sessions on a rotating basis,
with some sessions being county-oriented, some district-oriented, and
some oriented by job discipline. According to CIP staff, training across
disciplines helps each participant learn about the roles and responsibilities
of others as well as builds camaraderie among and a higher degree of
professionalism in all court participants.

For courts to meet statutory time frames and to understand the dynamics
and needs of the clients they serve, information is critical. To improve this
key element of court infrastructure, three of the five locations we
visited—California, Illinois, and North Carolina—are developing
information systems statewide or in specific counties. A fourth
location—Hamilton County, Ohio—developed its current juvenile court
information system beginning in 1992 and continues to enhance its
capability. Although the county’s Juvenile Case Activity Tracking System is
not linked to the child welfare agency’s computer system, the court
downloads information to the agency as needed. The systems in the sites
we visited are used, or will be used, to gather and track case data, evaluate
trends, manage workload, and share information. For example,
California’s CIP is providing computers to all jurisdictions and has created



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                       an Internet Web page for information sharing and networking among the
                       various counties. The Web site will contain a variety of items, such as case
                       summaries—since some courts do not have law libraries—and judicial
                       opinions. Cook County, Illinois, is developing a comprehensive computer
                       system for the county’s entire juvenile court, known as the Juvenile
                       Enterprise Management System (JEMS). JEMS electronically links the court
                       and its agencies (such as the public guardian, public defender, sheriff, and
                       state’s attorney) to gather case data and manage workload. North
                       Carolina’s CIP is developing a case management system using laptop
                       computers and case tracking software developed by the guardian ad litem
                       program.


Other Reforms Are      Other reforms under way in the states we visited focus on making
Focused on Improving   decisions in an individual child’s case, intervening at key points in the
Individual Case        process to gather and share comprehensive information among court
                       participants, and resolving issues outside the courtroom. State and local
Decision-Making        officials believe additional time invested at the beginning of a case can
                       shorten the length of time it takes to make a permanent placement
                       decision. For example, Day One Conferences in North Carolina’s District
                       20 are held on the first business day after a child is taken into custody by
                       the child welfare agency. In attendance are the parents, child welfare
                       caseworkers, guardians ad litem, public and mental health liaisons,
                       attorneys, public education liaisons, child support liaisons, law
                       enforcement officers, and the court improvement case manager. These
                       meetings provide a forum to arrange services for the family immediately,
                       on the basis of the belief that the more quickly the family receives
                       services, the more likely the family will be able to stay together or be
                       reunified. The meetings also provide an opportunity to reach agreement on
                       many aspects of the case outside the courtroom and can reduce the
                       number of times a case is continued. The Day One group discusses the
                       need for continued out-of-home placement, case planning and services
                       provided to the family before removal of the child from the home, and
                       future service needs. Should a decision be made for the child to remain in
                       out-of-home care, paternity, parental visitation, and financial support are
                       also discussed. Cook County, Illinois, has initiated Court Family
                       Conferences, similar to Day One Conferences, to provide an opportunity
                       for parents to participate in the process to expedite their children’s return
                       home. These conferences are held approximately 55 days after the
                       preliminary protective hearing to discuss issues in the case and, if
                       possible, set a realistic target date for a successful return home. Attempts
                       are made to reach agreement on key issues, such as the facts that led to



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removal of the children, the tasks the parents must complete in order to
have their children returned, and the date by which social services will be
provided.

Mediation—seen as a way to handle escalating court caseloads and
possibly decrease court hearings—is used at a variety of different points in
the court process in two of the five local sites we visited. Mediation
involves the intervention of a neutral third party who has no authoritative
decision-making power. The mediator helps the parties—such as the
parents and other relatives, assigned social workers, and child
advocates—come to agreement on issues in dispute in a nonadversarial
setting. Mediations allow all parties to be active in the decision-making
process and to develop a plan in the best interests of the child, thus
reducing the number of issues the court must decide.

The Ninth Judicial Circuit in Florida, for example, uses mediation for the
more difficult cases and a companion initiative—case plan
conferences—for the remaining ones. Case plan conferences follow the
mediation protocol but are not facilitated by a trained mediator. One goal
of these initiatives is to have parents acknowledge the problems that
brought them into the system. According to circuit officials, each method
allows the parties to reach resolution faster and enhances the quality of
trials because every issue in the case does not need to be discussed in
court. Further, the number of trials has decreased as more cases have
been fully resolved in mediation. Circuit officials believe the juvenile
dependency court system has become less adversarial and that the focus
has shifted away from winning or losing a case. Mediations and case plan
conferences, however, place additional resource demands on the system
because the mediation or conference must take place between the
preliminary protective hearing and when the abuse and neglect petition is
officially filed—generally a 3-week period in the Ninth Circuit. Similarly,
Santa Clara County, California, began using mediation in 1992 after the
state legislature encouraged its use as a way to intervene in cases in a
more constructive manner. Mediation may be used at any stage in the
court proceedings. After all areas of agreement are presented to the court,
the court determines the acceptability of any agreements reached.

Another reform—the one-judge model of case management—is used in
four of the five local sites we visited—Hamilton County, Ohio; Santa Clara
County, California; the Ninth Judicial Circuit in Florida; and District 20 in
North Carolina. This staffing process requires the judicial officer presiding
over the preliminary protective hearing to also conduct all subsequent



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                           hearings until the child is returned home or a decision has been reached
                           about where the child will permanently reside, generally no later than 12
                           months after the child is considered to have entered foster care, as
                           required by federal law. The one-judge model can enhance case
                           management and guarantees that one person has all the information
                           regarding the child. According to NCJFCJ’s Resource Guidelines, a judge
                           who remains involved with a family is more likely to make decisions that
                           are consistent with the best interests of the child.

                           Finally, two of the five local sites we visited have increased the length of
                           the preliminary protective hearing. NCJFCJ’s Resource Guidelines
                           recommend that courts allocate 1 hour for these hearings—which are
                           generally held immediately after a child’s removal from the home—to
                           allow adequate time to conduct a thorough assessment of the case. Cook
                           County, Illinois, created an adjunct to its preliminary hearing, known as
                           the extended temporary custody hearing, resulting in an increase in the
                           average time spent from about 7 minutes to about 45 minutes. The
                           extended temporary custody hearings are conducted off-the-record and
                           cover topics such as visitation plans, placement options, and the initial
                           service needs of the family, as well as reasonable efforts made by the child
                           welfare agency and a court review of the necessity of removing the child
                           from home. At the conclusion of the hearing, information is summarized
                           and presented to the court at the official preliminary protective hearing.
                           The Hamilton County, Ohio, juvenile court generally schedules an initial
                           hearing for 1 hour on the same day the petition has been filed to initiate
                           the court process. The purpose of the extended hearing is to get the case
                           moving quickly and to review the child welfare agency’s initial handling of
                           the case before the preliminary protective hearing. Counsel for parents
                           and a guardian ad litem for the child are appointed, and the court makes
                           an in-depth inquiry regarding the child’s current placement, early parental
                           visitation, and the availability of relatives to care for the child.


Key Ingredients Are        The experiences of the states and localities that have begun efforts to
Necessary for Successful   reform their juvenile dependency court systems provide valuable lessons
Reform                     to other jurisdictions contemplating similar reform efforts. During our
                           field work, state and local officials that have undertaken reforms identified
                           three ingredients that are key to successful reform efforts: (1) the
                           presence of judicial leadership and collaboration among child welfare
                           system participants, (2) the availability of timely information on how the
                           court is currently operating and processing cases, and (3) the availability
                           of financial resources to initiate and sustain reform.



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Judicial Leadership and      Experts as well as state and local officials in all five locations we visited
Collaboration Are Critical   agree that reforms cannot occur without strong judicial leadership. These
                             experts and officials believe that judges set the tone for how reform will
                             occur; have the authority to institute new court rules, policies, and
                             practices; and are key to bringing all child welfare system participants on
                             board. For example, in 1995 the ABA reported on reforms undertaken in the
                             Kent County, Michigan, juvenile dependency court.19 The ABA found that a
                             key element of that court’s ability to perform the additional functions
                             designed to help achieve permanent and safe homes for maltreated
                             children was a strong commitment from the presiding judge, other judges,
                             and almost all court staff to meet the individual needs of children and to
                             achieve safe permanent placements for maltreated children. According to
                             the NCJFCJ, judges in juvenile dependency courts need to feel comfortable
                             taking a leadership role beyond their traditional role. The juvenile court
                             judge is expected to actively develop resources and services for at-risk
                             children and families and to encourage interagency cooperation and
                             coordination.

                             Similarly, the juvenile court system is unique in its reliance on the work of
                             a variety of nonlegal professionals—such as caseworkers, private agency
                             social workers, and physicians—to make the most informed decisions
                             possible about an individual child. Collaboration of these participants is
                             necessary to get reforms under way and keep reforms moving. This
                             collaboration is critical because these individuals share responsibility with
                             the judiciary for providing care, representation, and protection for
                             children removed from their homes. Two ABA reports document the
                             importance of interdisciplinary collaboration. In 1993, the ABA’s Center on
                             Children and the Law concluded in a book for child welfare administrators
                             that the biggest mistake made by child welfare agencies is underestimating
                             their ability to solve problems together with the court.20 According to the
                             Center, agencies should develop well-reasoned strategies for working with
                             the juvenile courts and give it top priority. Similarly, the ABA’s 1995 report
                             on the model juvenile court in Kent County, Michigan, found that the
                             court’s interdisciplinary efforts to resolve individual cases as well as
                             systemic problems was a key element in its successful reform.21 HHS and
                             state and local officials in all five states we visited emphasize using a team
                             approach for identifying and implementing reforms, drawing in all relevant


                             19
                               ABA, A Second Court That Works.
                             20
                              ABA, Center on Children and the Law, How to Work With Your Court: A Guide for Child Welfare
                             Agency Administrators (Washington, D.C.: ABA, 1993).
                             21
                               ABA, A Second Court That Works.



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                          groups within the system. For example, in its CIP “Program Instruction,”
                          HHS strongly encouraged state courts to coordinate and collaborate with
                          other interested parties, programs, and resources, such as state child
                          welfare agencies, guardians ad litem, and attorneys, in administering the
                          CIP and designing new systems. Similarly, Florida CIP officials commented
                          that the strength of the CIP program is its multidisciplinary focus. The
                          Florida CIP assessment represented the first time all court participants had
                          been asked their opinion about the condition of child welfare and the
                          courts. The high level of animosity between the court and the child welfare
                          agency has diminished, and dialogue between court participants has
                          increased. Officials added that new child welfare legislation could not
                          have been passed without the teamwork of the court and the child welfare
                          agency.

                          Without the leadership of judges, reform efforts can fail. We found
                          evidence of this type of failure in North Carolina, where reforms were
                          originally scheduled for piloting in two judicial districts. Although reforms
                          were implemented in District 20, the second district dropped out of the
                          pilot project primarily because of a lack of judicial commitment and
                          vision, according to a CIP document. The document outlines the problems
                          encountered and states that although this district had other positive
                          attributes that increased its chances of implementing successful
                          reforms—such as cooperative working relationships between the court
                          and the child welfare agency—the lack of complete support and
                          commitment from the juvenile court judges impeded the district’s ability to
                          identify common goals and priorities for change. This lack of support was
                          manifested in several ways, including the court system’s tolerance for
                          attorney tardiness at mediation sessions, disagreements among judges on
                          how mediation results would be presented in court, and a lack of judges’
                          involvement in CIP committee meetings and training.

Baseline and Ongoing      State and local officials in some of the states we visited indicated that
Information on Court      statewide baseline data on how well their courts were meeting statutory
Operations Is Necessary   permanency time frames and on the nature of delays in the court process
                          provided the necessary information to structure reform efforts and to
                          convince others of the need for change. For example, Florida presented
                          the results of its CIP assessment at a statewide summit to show
                          participants their role in delaying case resolution. As a result, judicial
                          officers came to understand the nature of problems in the juvenile court
                          and how the officers contribute to delays in reaching decisions about
                          permanent homes for children. According to a CIP official, never before has
                          Florida experienced such judicial activism or court participants seeking



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                                change on the basis of data and analysis. Similarly, Illinois officials
                                indicated that the results of the statewide data collection for the CIP
                                assessment provided the proof of what everyone suspected was wrong
                                with the system, gave validity to the need for reform, and helped identify
                                the types of reform needed. Judicial officers in California said the CIP
                                assessment was potentially the most powerful document involved in
                                getting court improvement moving.

                                Effectively managing abuse and neglect cases over time is essential for
                                successful permanency planning. According to NCJFCJ, a key component of
                                case management is the use of a monitoring and information system
                                capable of measuring court progress in moving cases and identifying cases
                                that have been seriously delayed, among other things. Similarly, ABA’s 1992
                                report on the Hamilton County, Ohio, court stated that a key to this court’s
                                successful reforms was its routine collection and use of data.22 California
                                CIP officials told us that data are critically needed because the state does
                                not know how many children are under the jurisdiction of the court. These
                                officials are requiring all local CIP projects to provide data because they
                                believe such data are critical for making good decisions and policies for
                                children.

Financial Resources Are         HHS and DOJ have provided and administered funds for a variety of reforms,
Essential to Seed and Sustain   such as development of model courts, the Resource Guidelines, and CIPs.
Reform Efforts                  These funding streams are significant because experts and state and local
                                officials agree that juvenile dependency courts have few resources to
                                independently undertake reform activities. In 1995, ABA reported that child
                                maltreatment cases still have low priority in most court systems, in terms
                                of attention by court administrators, assignment of qualified judges, and
                                allocation of resources.23

                                Some state and local officials echoed this concern, adding that programs
                                such as CIP were critical to the reform work now occurring. According to
                                these officials and other experts, CIP provided funding to help the courts
                                improve the handling of maltreatment cases, enabling and mandating each
                                state to gather the necessary baseline information and orchestrate
                                reforms. For example, a Cook County, Illinois, official told us the court
                                had previously tried to gather baseline information about the permanency
                                process to no avail—the project was difficult because funding was not
                                available from federal, state, or local sources. Similarly, Florida CIP
                                officials and court staff told us that, as a result of CIP’s initiation and

                                22
                                  ABA, Judicial Implementation of Permanency Planning Reform.
                                23
                                  ABA, A Second Court That Works, 1995.



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                            funding, juvenile dependency courts are in the spotlight for the first time,
                            and judges are more interested than they were previously in implementing
                            court improvements. These officials added that the Florida assessment
                            would not have been possible without CIP funding and that no other entity
                            would have funded other critical activities, such as the establishment of
                            working groups to develop major revisions to the state’s child protection
                            statute.


Local Officials Note        Most sites we visited are just beginning the process of evaluating and
Progress, but Few Results   documenting the effectiveness of implemented reforms, although progress
Are Documented              has been made in addressing some of the problems that plague juvenile
                            dependency courts. For example, Cook County, Illinois, has seen its court
                            caseload drop from 58,000 in 1994 to 38,000 in 1997, and Hamilton County,
                            Ohio’s, caseload dropped from 4,000 in 1979 to 1,500 in 1995. Cook County
                            and Hamilton County officials view the drop in caseload as an
                            improvement in their dependency court process. In addition to smaller
                            court caseloads, local officials told us anecdotally that other
                            improvements are occurring, such as (1) fewer court continuances are
                            requested, granted, or both; fewer cases are contested; and cases seem to
                            be resolved more quickly; (2) judges are more active in cases, and court
                            participants are working toward developing a less adversarial
                            environment; and (3) services for the family begin earlier, and better
                            information on the family’s progress may be available for court
                            decision-making on cases.

                            These improvements, however, have not been formally evaluated.
                            Although determining the right measures for evaluation can be difficult,
                            without this kind of information, officials are unable to determine which
                            interventions have improved their courts and which have not. Evaluation
                            plans in the states we visited are limited. For instance, the CIP Advisory
                            Committees in all five states are in the early stages of developing
                            evaluation plans. Illinois CIP officials have required all projects funded with
                            CIP dollars to provide regular status reports and conduct an evaluation of
                            the project. Projects previously funded are currently working on
                            developing evaluations, and projects funded in 1998 must provide a
                            reporting and evaluation plan to the CIP Committee before receiving the
                            money. In addition, all projects must provide baseline data so that change
                            can be measured. Illinois officials acknowledge that evaluation will be
                            difficult, since several changes may be undertaken in one location and it
                            will be hard to separate out results. In addition, good statistical data are
                            usually lacking in the counties, which impedes baseline development.



                            Page 24                                     GAO/HEHS-99-13 Juvenile Court Reform
                   B-281326




                   Similarly, a Florida CIP official told us that the state plans to evaluate court
                   improvements statewide using a self-evaluation tool sent to the local
                   circuits. Unfortunately, judicial circuits are not required under CIP to
                   maintain statistics, and therefore some do not.


                   The juvenile dependency courts face numerous systemic problems that
Concluding         hinder their ability to oversee, monitor, and guide decision-making to
Observations       protect children and ensure that they are placed in an appropriate,
                   permanent home. To address these problems, states and localities have
                   initiated reforms aimed at improving the quality and timeliness of judicial
                   decisions, in order to minimize the amount of time children spend in the
                   foster care system. However, if the courts are to move forward in
                   addressing children’s long stays in the foster care system, they must
                   remain cognizant of the essential reform components—such as strong
                   judicial leadership—that we found are common to successful reform
                   efforts. Adding to the demands of reforming dependency courts, new
                   federal legislation poses challenges for courts in their attempts to change
                   the way they monitor and process child maltreatment cases. ASFA requires
                   states and localities to file a court petition to terminate the parental rights
                   of the child’s parents if the child has been in foster care for 15 of the most
                   recent 22 months, as well as to hold the permanency planning hearing no
                   later than 12 months after the child is considered to have entered foster
                   care. These provisions exert new pressure on the courts to move cases
                   more quickly and affect how the courts conduct child maltreatment
                   proceedings. States and localities not actively engaged in reform will need
                   to recognize the importance of identifying and implementing new ways to
                   more quickly move children through the dependency court process and
                   meet the requirements of this legislation. States and localities already
                   implementing changes will need to anticipate the consequences of their
                   reform efforts and restructure them, if necessary, so additional problems
                   are not created. For example, as the amount of time it takes to establish
                   plans for where children will permanently live diminishes, states and
                   localities may see increases in the number of children for whom parental
                   rights have been severed and for whom they will need to identify potential
                   placements.


                   We obtained comments on a draft of this report from HHS, state CIP
Agency and Other   officials, and local judges responsible for the juvenile dependency courts
Comments           in the five locations we visited. HHS commented that it has actively worked
                   with the states to address court reform issues since the inception of CIP



                   Page 25                                      GAO/HEHS-99-13 Juvenile Court Reform
B-281326




and outlined a variety of activities the Department has undertaken. HHS
also provided technical comments, which we incorporated where
appropriate. State CIP and local officials from the five juvenile dependency
courts generally agreed with the report’s findings and provided technical
clarifications about the reforms under way, which we also incorporated in
the report as appropriate.


We are sending copies of this report to the Secretary of Health and Human
Services, state CIP liaisons, state child welfare agencies, and other
interested parties. Copies will also be made available to others on request.
If you or your staff have any questions about this report, please call me at
(202) 512-7215. Other major contributors to this report are listed in
appendix II.

Sincerely yours,




Mark V. Nadel
Associate Director
Income Security Issues




Page 26                                    GAO/HEHS-99-13 Juvenile Court Reform
Page 27   GAO/HEHS-99-13 Juvenile Court Reform
Contents



Letter                                                                                           1


Appendix I                                                                                      30
Scope and
Methodology
Appendix II                                                                                     32
GAO Contacts and
Staff
Acknowledgments
Related GAO Products                                                                            36


Table                  Table 1: Hearings Held for Child Maltreatment Cases                       5




                       Abbreviations

                       ABA       American Bar Association
                       ASFA      Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997
                       CASA      court-appointed special advocate
                       CIP       Court Improvement Program
                       DOJ       Department of Justice
                       HHS       Department of Health and Human Services
                       JEMS      Juvenile Enterprise Management System
                       NCJFCJ    National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges
                       NCJJ      National Center for Juvenile Justice


                       Page 28                                 GAO/HEHS-99-13 Juvenile Court Reform
Page 29   GAO/HEHS-99-13 Juvenile Court Reform
Appendix I

Scope and Methodology


             To determine what problems the juvenile dependency courts face, we
             reviewed the relevant literature and interviewed experts in the
             dependency court process, such as officials at national court-related
             organizations and researchers. We obtained the perspectives of
             representatives of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court
             Judges (NCJFCJ), American Bar Association (ABA), National Center for
             Juvenile Justice, National Center for State Courts, National
             Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Association, National
             Association of State Foster Care Managers, Annie E. Casey Foundation,
             and Kellogg Foundation. In addition, we interviewed officials of the
             Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
             Prevention, and the Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s
             Bureau. Finally, for the states we visited, we reviewed assessments of
             foster care and adoption laws and judicial processes in child maltreatment
             proceedings. These assessments were required under the Court
             Improvement Program (CIP).

             To obtain first-hand information on dependency court activities, we
             conducted field visits in California, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, and
             Ohio, where we reviewed reforms funded by CIP as well as by other
             programs. We chose these five locations—Santa Clara County, California;
             the Ninth Judicial Circuit in Florida, composed of Orange and Osceola
             counties; Cook County, Illinois; Judicial District 20 in North Carolina,
             composed of Anson, Richmond, Stanly, and Union counties; and Hamilton
             County, Ohio—because experts considered them to be implementing
             significant reforms or because CIP had been a major impetus for change
             there. We also chose a mix of rural, suburban, and urban locations. Florida
             and North Carolina were chosen because CIP had been the catalyst for
             change in those states. Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit was chosen because
             its CIP pilot project had implemented several reforms, including several of
             the provisions proposed under the Adoption and Safe Families Act but not
             yet enacted by the Congress when Florida’s pilot began in August 1997.
             North Carolina, a predominantly rural state, had established a CIP pilot
             project in Judicial District 20. We also selected three states—California,
             Illinois, and Ohio—that had reforms under way before CIP. California was
             chosen because it contained approximately 23 percent of the nation’s
             foster care population in fiscal year 1996, and Santa Clara County, because
             of its history of reform since the early 1980s. The presiding judge in Santa
             Clara County is also seen as a leading expert in reforming child
             maltreatment proceedings, according to the ABA and NCJFCJ. Illinois was
             also chosen because of its high share of the nation’s foster care
             population—about 9 percent in fiscal year 1996—and Cook County,



             Page 30                                   GAO/HEHS-99-13 Juvenile Court Reform
Appendix I
Scope and Methodology




because of its urban character, known problems in the courts, and status
as an NCJFCJ model court. Finally, Hamilton County, Ohio, was selected
because it has been actively reforming its juvenile dependency courts
since the mid-1980s and is considered a model for other courts seeking to
reform.

In each state, we met with state CIP officials to obtain an overview of
ongoing and planned court improvement efforts throughout the state, as
well as with state child welfare officials to discuss their involvement in
court reform. We also obtained state officials’ views of problems in their
courts and challenges that lie ahead. At the local sites we selected, we met
with a variety of participants in the child welfare system, including judicial
officers, attorneys, guardians ad litem, CASA representatives, court
administrative staff, child welfare officials, and service providers. We
discussed problems and barriers to reforms, progress achieved under the
reforms in place, and remaining obstacles. Finally, we observed court
child maltreatment proceedings in each site.




Page 31                                     GAO/HEHS-99-13 Juvenile Court Reform
Appendix II

GAO Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments


                  David D. Bellis, Assistant Director, (202) 512-7278
GAO Contacts      Diana M. Pietrowiak, Evaluator-in-Charge, (202) 512-6239


                  Ellen Soltow also made important contributions to this report.
Staff
Acknowledgments




                  Page 32                                   GAO/HEHS-99-13 Juvenile Court Reform
Page 33   GAO/HEHS-99-13 Juvenile Court Reform
Page 34   GAO/HEHS-99-13 Juvenile Court Reform
Page 35   GAO/HEHS-99-13 Juvenile Court Reform
Related GAO Products


              Child Welfare: Early Experiences Implementing a Managed Care Approach
              (GAO/HEHS-99-8, Oct. 21, 1998).

              Foster Care: Agencies Face Challenges Securing Stable Homes for
              Children of Substance Abusers (GAO/HEHS-98-182, Sept. 30, 1998).

              Foster Care: Challenges Faced in Implementing the Multiethnic Placement
              Act (GAO/T-HEHS-98-241, Sept. 15, 1998).

              Foster Care: Implementation of the Multiethnic Placement Act Poses
              Difficult Challenges (GAO/HEHS-98-204, Sept. 14, 1998).

              Parental Substance Abuse: Implications for Children, the Child Welfare
              System, and Foster Care Outcomes (GAO/T-HEHS-98-40, Oct. 28, 1997).

              Child Protective Services: Complex Challenges Require New Strategies
              (GAO/HEHS-97-115, July 21, 1997).

              Foster Care: State Efforts to Improve the Permanency Planning Process
              Show Some Promise (GAO/HEHS-97-73, May 7, 1997).

              Child Welfare: States’ Progress in Implementing Family Preservation and
              Support Activities (GAO/HEHS-97-34, Feb. 18, 1997).

              Child Welfare: Complex Needs Strain Capacity to Provide Services
              (GAO/HEHS-95-208, Sept. 26, 1995).

              Child Welfare: Opportunities to Further Enhance Family Preservation and
              Support Activities (GAO/HEHS-95-112, June 15, 1995).

              Foster Care: Health Needs of Many Young Children Unknown and Unmet
              (GAO/HEHS-95-114, May 26, 1995).

              Foster Care: Parental Drug Use Has Alarming Impact on Young Children
              (GAO/HEHS-94-89, Apr. 4, 1994).

              Residential Care: Some High-Risk Youth Benefit, but More Study Needed
              (GAO/HEHS-94-56, Jan. 28, 1994).




(116010)      Page 36                                  GAO/HEHS-99-13 Juvenile Court Reform
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