Court cooperation improves child safety

David Sanders, executive vice president of Systems Improvement, delivered the plenary address at the Third National Judicial Leadership Summit in Austin, Texas.


It is a great privilege to speak to this important gathering today. I am truly honored to join you. As this is the Third Judicial Leadership Summit on the Protection of Children, I am pleased that you are continuing your commitment to build on your existing foundation of work, while taking on the challenge of creating new paths for children.

Before I begin, I would like to thank the Conference of Chief Justices, the Conference of State Court Administrators, the National Center for State Courts and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges for jointly sponsoring this event and focusing on the family court matters that are a huge part of work in state courts. And the Texas Office of Court Administration in this host state. I also would like to recognize the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care for its tremendous work with the courts, child welfare and these summits. If invitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it is significant that Casey Family Programs has stepped in to continue to support an effort that Pew initiated. I’m pleased that Marci McCoy-Roth is here today from Pew Charitable Trusts. Thank you, Joan Ohl, Sue Badeau and Susan Weiss.

For those of you not familiar with Casey Family Programs, let me give you a quick overview. Casey’s mission is to provide and improve – and ultimately to prevent the need for – foster care. Established by United Parcel Service (UPS) founder Jim Casey in 1966, the foundation provides direct services and promotes advances in child welfare practice and policy. Casey Family Programs is the largest operating foundation that focuses exclusively on foster care.

In 2006, CFP launched our 2020 Strategy for America’s Children which promotes influencing a 50% reduction in the nation’s foster care population by the year 2020; reinvesting the savings that occur as a result of reduction back into the system to strengthen families and to improve well being outcomes in the areas of: education, employment and mental health for children in care.

The notion of influence is critical because we believe the only way to improve outcomes for abused and neglected children is to support the outstanding judicial executive and legislative leadership charged with serving our nation’s most vulnerable children.

This is the first time that Casey Family Programs has been a co-sponsor of this conference, but it won’t be the last. Our presence here reflects our deep commitment to supporting court improvement. We are determined to help judges acquire all the tools and resources they need to make the best possible decisions for children and youth. We also want to support strong collaboration between the judicial and executive and, I might also add, legislative branches of government. We believe that those systems that are most effective strive for each branch of government to carry out its unique role in assuring improved outcomes for children. When there is finger pointing, blame and attempts to usurp each others role, it is our belief that the system is less effective and outcomes for children are poorer. This is a system that requires – no, demands – strong checks and balances to assure improved outcomes for children and families and at the foundation of those checks and balances is strong collaboration.

During 2010 and 2011, we intend to strengthen and deepen our relationships with NCSC, NCJFCJ and ABA. We will look to highlight the great practices across the country and share them with others, judge to judge, children’s attorney to children’s attorney, child welfare administrator to child welfare administrator, and AOC TO AOC.

As an example, I was in Allegheny County, Penn. last week and met with David Wecht, the administrative Judge for Family Court, Marc Cherna, the Director of Human Services, as well as the court administrator and the lead attorneys for children, parents and the agency. For the past 10 years they have continually improved outcomes for children. They started with the HS agency funding more attorneys for children and parents and hearing officers to strengthen checks and balances. They have already moved to quarterly permanency hearings for youth, the creation of a team that assures the same judge and attorneys are working with each family, and, remarkably, to community courtrooms to improve access for families and coordination with the human services agency. In addition, they are now moving to a unified family court that brings together custody dependency and delinquency hearings and judges. This is remarkable work and we want to highlight it. However, as is the case with so many initiatives, the devil is in the details. We believe in not only highlighting these practices, but bringing together leadership in jurisdictions interested in implementing such practices to learn the detail from those who have done it.

In addition, we look to support improved production of an analysis of data as a critical activity in improving outcomes for youth. I know from experience how critical data can be in informing the system of its trends and challenges and in driving change.

We also want to continue to support the need for child welfare finance reform so federal, state and local funding actually support the outcomes of a safe, permanent family for all children and emphasize the prevention of abuse and neglect as a primary goal. Finally, I want to emphasize our foundation’s commitment to reducing disparate outcomes for children of color in the child welfare system and want to recognize and commend the leadership of NCJFCJ and juvenile court judges across the country for their commitment to reduce disproportionality and disparities through the courts catalyzing change initiative. It is an honor to be part of this effort together with Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention. Let me talk some about the history of this summit.

The first summit was co-chaired in 2005 by Chief Justice Blatz and Lee Suskin, who then was Vermont’s state court administrator and remains important to this summit. Justice Blatz and Mr. Suskin co-led that summit to push for a collaborative approach in our nation’s dependency courts. They deserve our eternal gratitude.

That first summit was a national call to action that recognized the court’s vital role in child protection.

While courts make many critical decisions every day, from municipal courts to the U.S. Supreme Court, no decision is more important than one that sets the course of a child’s life. Nowhere else are the stakes so high.

The 2005 summit recognized that. And it recognized that the legal process needed to change to improve outcomes for abused and neglected children whose cases come into the courtroom – including the half million children who populate the foster care system on any given day in America.

That first summit sparked action. It inspired justices, judges, agency leaders, attorneys, social workers, guardians ad litem, court administrators, and other child protection system leaders. Court improvement plans expanded, leading us on a path to a better decision-making process nationally.

The second summit built on the first meeting. Not all of you were able to attend that meeting in New York in 2007. This year, however, 45 states and the District of Columbia have sent teams together with judicial leadership from two additional states.

I am truly overwhelmed by the attendance at this summit and excited about the potential improvement in outcomes for children and families that will result from the planning and sharing during this summit and when you return to your states.

Before going into some of the goals and hopes for this summit, I would like to share some about my background.

Prior to coming to Casey Family Programs three years ago, I spent 13 years as the director of two large urban jurisdictions – Hennepin County which includes Minneapolis and suburbs and in which hosted the first summit; and Los Angeles County. I’ve had the privilege of working with jurisdictions and court administrators who are champions of this summit effort. To mention a few: Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George and Justice Carlos Moreno of California and retired Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz. Chief Justice Blatz was actually a juvenile court judge in Hennepin County prior to moving to the Supreme Court. In addition, I worked closely with Judge Robert Braeser who was the presiding juvenile court judge in Hennepin for many of my years as director and the current Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Kathryn Quaintance was actually a prosecutor for Hennepin County when I was there. Finally Sue Dosal, the Minnesota Court Administrator, was critical to supporting some of the improvements I will talk about.

In California, William Vickrey, the administrative director of the California courts who served on the Pew Commission, deserves recognition and I have been able to work closely with Christopher Wa from AOC and finally, last but not least, I had the tremendous opportunity to partner with Judge Michael Nash during my time in Los Angeles County. I took time to mention these key leaders because they are responsible for leading efforts in the two jurisdictions that I was part of that resulted in improved outcomes for children.

In Hennepin County, the court and agency saw the need to improve time to permanency and partnered to increase the frequency of court hearings for children from every six months to every three months. This was done in conjunction with a legislative change that shortened the time to the final permanency hearing for children eight and under. The overall result was that children in Hennepin County achieved the reunification and adoption more quickly. In addition, in Minnesota the Supreme Court lead the effort to open dependency court proceedings and records to the public after the legislature chose not to take action on this issue. Hennepin County, through collaboration with the Chief Juvenile Court Judge, the County Attorney and the Child Welfare Agency Director, volunteered to pilot this change and these changes contributed to improved overall system performance and a better informed public.

In one of the key efforts, the child welfare agency collaborated with the court to identify all youth who had been in care for two years or longer without a permanent resource. We brought in retired social workers to work intensively with these young people, their case records, and Family Finding to identify kin. And in collaboration with the court, we reconsidered their permanency plan. The result was that over 30 percent of these youth who had languished in care without hope for a permanent family were able to achieve legal permanency through reunification, subsidized guardianship or adoption.

In Los Angeles County, the number of children in foster care has declined from 48,000 to 16,000 during Judge Nash’s tenure through collaboration activities that focused on increasing the number of adoptions, increasing the use of kinship care, strengthening the representation for children and parents and improved practice on the part of social workers, attorneys and judges.

I can’t overstate the fact that none of the improvements that I cited would have occurred without strong leadership from both the judicial and executive branch and an unwavering commitment to work together. Let me devote the remainder of my remarks by focusing on our hopes and goals for this summit and beyond. I’ll start again with the Pew Commission. This reduction has occurred primarily by moving children to permanency more quickly – not through reduced entries into care.

The Pew Commission pointed out some business that still remains unfinished.

It said many courts need to improve their ability to spot emerging trends in child welfare cases, eliminate delays in court proceedings and identify groups of children entering the system at high rates.

Courts must overcome the institutional barriers that discourage courts and child welfare agencies from working together to improve outcomes for children.

Judges, court administrators, attorneys, social work and child development professionals need better cross-system training in child development and effective dependency court practices, which would help each partner be more effective in their role and result in more appropriate and timely decisions for children.

The voices of children and parents need to be heard – all children and parents need both a direct voice and informed advocates providing judges with more information they need to make decisions in the child’s best interest. Many parents are overwhelmed by the court system and their attorneys will need to advise them of their rights and how they can exercise them in the system.

In my opinion it is critical to emphasize three points to address the unfinished business highlighted by the Pew Commission. The first two echo comments from Justice Washington. First, is the clear unquestioned responsibility of court leadership. Second, is what does that data tell us? Third, is a clear plan of action.

Let me talk about the responsibility of court leadership. Four years ago former Judge William Byers of South Carolina reminded the first Judicial Summit in Minneapolis of our urgent call at these summits because children can’t wait. Here’s what he said and I quote: “Children are stuck in a system that was designed for adults. It’s come down to a belief that we need to look at the system through the eyes of a child.” I would add, when I first heard this quote from Judge Byars, I changed “a child” to “my child.” In other words, look at the system through the eyes of my own child. There is a unique and powerful responsibility that judicial leadership, starting with the state supreme court chief justices, have in carrying out this responsibility.

Courts carry a heavy responsibility to ensure that no child enters foster care unnecessarily, or stays in foster care longer than necessary for their safety. It is not a responsibility fully understood by most of the public.

Casey has a full understanding of the court’s role in child safety, permanency and well-being. As we work with state, county and tribal child welfare agencies, Casey knows that no child enters, moves within, or leaves foster care without court involvement, and always considers the judicial branch’s essential role in achieving the goal of safely reducing the number of children in foster care by half by the year 2020.

We believe expedited permanency is one of the most effective strategies to safely reduce the number of children in foster care. Every child needs a permanent, safe and caring family, and that is as critical as foster care is to assuring safety for abused and neglected children. Children’s lives are saved everyday because states have individuals and families willing to provide a safe haven for children who have been hurt in their own families. If foster care is designed as a temporary save haven, children need a sense of certainty from family – not uncertainty – for three, six, twelve months or more.

You, as the judicial leadership, have a unique responsibility to assure, in collaboration with the executive and legislative branches, that all abused and neglected children are with safe, permanent, loving families. I want that for my own daughter and nobody at this summit would accept anything less for their own children.

As we heard from Judge Macus, this leadership and collaboration is occurring throughout the country, including here in Texas with the Texas Judicial Commission. In addition, the chief justices and administrative offices have complementary roles in setting standards for court improvement. Our hope out of this summit is that you will set those standards high and continually use what you would want for your own children as a guide.

Second, improvements should be shaped and guided by measurable data and outcomes. Remember the foster care reduction in LA? It was driven and guided by the fact that we believed we had too many children in care for too long and the data confirmed that.

It is critical to look at state and local data, but let me tell you a little about what we know nationally. The number of children in foster care declined from 508,000 in 2006 to 474,000 in 2008. However, the median length of stay was 12.8 months and mean length of stay 30 months. Is that what you would want for your own child?

CFSR data shows time to reunification has increased, reentry into foster care has improved, timeliness of children becoming legally free has improved,and more children in care over two years are achieving permanency.

Regarding education, a 2003 Casey national study found that youth who had had one fewer placement change per year were almost twice as likely to graduate from high school before leaving care.

When children do well in school, disruption in foster family placement is less likely. Conversely, studies show that behavioral challenges leading to frequent school suspensions and expulsion cause greater lengths of stay in foster care and disruptions in placements. That, in turn, leads to more school changes and more involvement with the judicial system.

When children experience greater school stability and success, foster parents feel supported and better equipped to help the child in their home, not only with school related activities, but with other issues. This increases the likelihood of permanent, stable placements.

Finally, I want to highlight a particularly concerning area. Recently the Children’s Bureau released data regarding the first 32 states during the second round of the Child and Family Safety Review (CFSR). There were dramatic differences between how the needs of fathers and mothers are addressed by agencies. In 73 percent of cases, there were supported relationships with mothers but only in 54 percent of cases with fathers.

In other parts of the case process, the report showed differences in assessments (mothers: 79 percent, vs. fathers: 52 percent): involvement in case planning (74 percent vs. 48 percent) and frequently of visitation (69 percent vs. 42 percent).

The data point needs to continue to improve time to permanency, provides guidance on the importance of improving education outcomes for youth, and underscores the work that agencies and courts must do in the first 30 days after removal to assure that all relatives on both sides of the family are identified.

Finally, let me conclude by talking about possible next steps beyond what I have already mentioned and that consists primarily of developing and implementing a plan of action.

First, let me describe two important opportunities. Educators are part of this summit for the first time. This is truly historic and we hope that the relationships begun here will continue to develop and deepen at the state and local levels. Education can be a critical component to improving outcomes for youth served in the foster care system as you heard from the studies I cited, and it is critical to, at a minimum, share data between systems to track outcomes. Education, the courts and child welfare agencies can and must work together to achieve improved outcomes.

The second opportunity is the recent passage of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. The courts have a new tool to expedite permanency including connecting children to relative’s, subsidized guardianship and adoptions assistance. Furthermore, the new law extends training dollars available through Title IV-E to all parts of the child welfare system, including personnel of the judicial system. This funding, combined with the existing training dollars for the court improvement programs, should allow for comprehensive cutting-edge training programs that are data driven and outcome focused.

Make sure that you take advantage of the opportunities presented by the involvement of education leadership in this Summit and the provisions of the Fostering Connections Act in your planning.

Finally, it will be up to you to use the next two days to develop ideas and, following the summit, to continue to develop ideas and implement new ones through the eyes of a child. While I can’t tell you what the plan should consider, I can suggest that you constantly consider the following questions:

Is your system engaging families in the way you would want to be engaged? Do you hear directly from parents and youth and are children in care getting the attention that you would want for your own children?

Do you have any children in care, especially congregate care, who have been in out-of-home care for longer than three months? In other words a summer vacation, which I’m sure you will all recall from Judge Byars’ speech, is a lifetime for children. I know that’s shorter than legal permanency timelines but what would you want for your own children? What can you do for these children when you return to work on Monday?

Finally, have you or your system given up on any children? Given up on finding a permanent home? In other words, how many alternative planned permanent living arrangements are you overseeing? Are you absolutely sure that the young person doesn’t know anyone that he or she wants to develop a close caring relationship with? Have you asked them lately? Are you sure there aren’t adults who have known or know the young person that would not be willing to develop or strengthen a caring relationship with the young person? Have you asked them lately?

Your actions derived out of this meeting will determine the future of scores of young people. And actions based on your answer to these questions can actually drive actions that begin Monday and that’s the urgency we need.

It’s an awesome responsibility. Set the same standard for them as you would for your own children and see our work through their eyes.