The Third Branch
Training sessions highlight need for input from children at permanency hearings
Judge Marshall B. Murray, Milwaukee County Circuit Court, left, and Reserve Judge Gary L. Carlson, make a presentation during a district training session on permanency hearings. The training sessions, delivered statewide, were designed to reinforcing the leadership role of the court official in conducting effective permanency hearings.
By Amy Roehl, Policy Analyst, Children's Court Improvement Program
Approximately 114 judges from each of Wisconsin's 10 Judicial Administrative Districts attended training sessions designed to promote effective and qualitative permanency hearings, encourage youth participation in court proceedings, and to identify strategies to achieve timely permanence for children in foster care.
From Aug. 16 through Oct. 19, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Marshall B. Murray and retired Taylor County Circuit Judge Gary L. Carlson, along with Children's Court Improvement Program (CCIP) staff, conducted the training with the specific goal of reinforcing the leadership role of the court official in conducting effective permanency hearings.
The Clocking is Ticking: Making Permanency Hearings Meaningful, a three-hour training curriculum, was developed jointly by Murray and Carlson, CCIP, the American Bar Association (ABA) Center on Children and the Law, and the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families.
Permanency hearings, for those unfamiliar with juvenile court and the child welfare system, are court proceedings for a child who has been removed from his or her home and placed in out-of-home care. The purpose of the hearing is to establish a roadmap towards a permanent family-oriented home for the child, whether it is returning home, adoption, guardianship, placement with a fit-and-willing relative, or other planned permanent living arrangement.
The training was created after a 2010 audit by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Children's Bureau determined that permanency hearings in Wisconsin were often perfunctory, brief, and lacking a substantive discussion about the child and parents. According to Carlson: "Too many kids are languishing in foster care and those of us in the courts with the power to make significant changes weren't paying enough attention. Judge Murray and I hope we have helped make changes in those old attitudes."
While the primary focus of the training was to inform judges and court commissioners, district attorneys and corporation counsel, county agency child welfare workers, attorneys for the children and parents, and court staff were also invited to attend in order to review county practices as a multidisciplinary team. All participants from each county were seated together so they could discuss case scenarios presented in the training and at the end, develop a plan to implement the suggested best practices in their county. Participants were also provided with materials, including a permanency hearing judicial checklist, a permanency hearing summary sheet, a summary of Wisconsin Act 181 and judicial bench cards created by the ABA Center on Children and the Law on how to engage youth of any age at court hearings.
Each training began with a pre-assessment where participants were anonymously asked to respond to eight questions designed to measure attitudes regarding permanency hearings, the importance of the participant's role in achieving permanence for children, and youth participation in permanency hearings. At the end of each session, participants were asked to answer the same set of questions. Judges demonstrated the most significant attitudinal shift on whether children should and wanted to attend their permanency hearings and also whether the permanency plan contained all the necessary information.
Carlson stated that he "was elated with the significant changes in attitudes demonstrated by the participants, especially the judges, on these significant points." For example, before the training 44 percent of all judges either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that children should attend their permanency hearings. At the end of the training, 91percent of all judges agreed or strongly agreed that children should attend their permanency hearings.
Participants were shown a video, titled "Children in Court: In Their Own Words," in which now-young adults describe their experiences in court as children in foster care. The purpose of the video was to aid judges in better understanding the needs and emotions of children involved in court and that the decisions made at permanency hearings are critically important to the kids. According to Carlson, "this video was a critical component to the training and had a significant impact on the participants."
After viewing the video, all participants were encouraged to anonymously submit in writing their thoughts about the video. Many attendees noted that they had not included youth in their hearings and that this video challenged their assumptions that youth did not want to participate.
One participant wrote: "I have not been listening. I need to spend more time with the children. I have been doing these hearings all wrong." Others listed ways in which they plan to make court less formal, more inclusive, and less intimidating for children and youth. Another participant noted: "After seeing the kids on video, it reminded me how scary a courtroom can be. Children feel underappreciated in court. Kids want to be asked questions and given more of an opportunity to give an opinion. I better be willing to make sure the kids do express themselves in court."
CCIP and the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families worked with the UW-Madison Division of Information Technology to produce the unscripted video with a grant from the Casey Family Foundation.
Overall the program resulted in a significant shift in attitudes and knowledge related to permanency hearings. At the beginning of the training, 77 percent of judges agreed or strongly agreed that permanency hearings were valuable court proceedings; by the end of the training, 95 percent of all judges agreed or strongly agreed with this statement.
In the coming months, CCIP will follow-up with participants to learn whether the suggested strategies have been implemented at the county level and whether these attitudinal changes have taken hold and translated into more effective practice since the training.