Blood is thicker than water—the old adage is threaded through the career of retired Los Angeles Dependency Court Judge Michael Nash. From his early days on the bench 30 years ago, Judge Nash noticed a theme. In case after case in which parents’ rights were terminated, the child welfare agency had not fully searched for missing parents. He began pressing the agency to perform comprehensive searches. This would turn up parents—usually fathers—who often became positive forces in their children’s lives.
The experience began shaping his view of the importance of family for children in the child welfare system. “In my experience, more often than not, children have a better sense of belonging, and more stability with relatives.” This theme would carry through during his time on the bench, mirroring a cultural change in child welfare to prioritize maintaining families by engaging and supporting relatives.
Engaging Relatives: Court Innovations
Over the years, Los Angeles County dependency courts have undertaken several efforts to engage family as resources for children in the child welfare system, including:
- Years ago, a relative information form was created to give parents at the initial court hearing the opportunity to identify relative resources for children.
- A project 15 years ago identified relatives and other resources for youth at risk of aging out of the child welfare system. The approach resulted in half or more of court-involved youth forming relationships with a responsible adult who would be helpful to them whether they aged out or not.
- A pilot project 10 years ago engaged in family-finding efforts at the front-end of cases. These efforts located more relative resources for children early in the case, increased relative placements, and helped children return home faster than other children.
These efforts led to an uptick in children placed with relatives. “Here in Los Angeles, we’ve done a fair job bringing relatives into the process,” said Judge Nash. “We’ve seen 40-50% of children in out-of-home care placed with relatives, which is better than average.”
Judge’s Oversight Role
The court’s efforts have reflected shifts in law and practice in California and nationally requiring relatives to be notified and engaged in child welfare cases. This heightened focus on relatives has carved out an oversight role for judges.
“Judges are the last line of defense and certainly should be paying attention to whether or not those requirements are being complied with,” said Judge Nash. He said that continuously asking about the availability of relatives, overseeing the maintenance of and development of family connections (including sibling connections), and ensuring relatives are getting the support they need are important roles for judges.
Judge Nash offered the following questions for judges to ask all caregivers—relatives and others—and ensure are answered in every case:
- How is the child doing?
- How are you doing with the child?
- Are you getting the appropriate assistance?
- Do you have all the information you need to take appropriate care of the child?
Judge Nash cited the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges’ (NCJFCJ) recent Enhanced Resource Guidelines in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases as a tool for judges to ensure legal compliance with notice requirements and efforts to identify and engage relatives in all stages of a child welfare court case. “They are a great bible for judges who work in child welfare throughout the country,” said Judge Nash. The Enhanced Resource Guidelines build on NCJFCJ’s original Resource Guidelines developed in 1995 and include bench cards for each child welfare court proceeding. The bench cards specify when relatives and kin should be present and involved and strategies for engaging and supporting them.
California has shown its commitment to giving relatives the financial assistance and support they need to care for children through a new resource family approval process. Judge Nash explained that by law the agency has 90 days to approve a relative placement so the relative can get the full financial benefits afforded to foster parents. During the approval process, relatives receive an additional stipend of $400 per month for three months until the process is completed.
Judge Nash stressed the unique role of judges in offering encouragement when relative caregivers come to court. “Judges should welcome [relatives] and encourage the receiving of input from them,” he said. “They are taking on a big responsibility. They have the children with them every day and they know more about the child than anybody else at this point.” He added that social workers should work with relatives to prepare information for the court and inform them of their right to give input to the court, in writing or otherwise.
Creating a Relative-Friendly System
In his current role as executive director of the Los Angeles County Office of Child Protection, Judge Nash is leading a project he calls “a game changer.” Motivated by a shortage of foster parents in Los Angeles, the project is looking to raise relative placements by 10-20% above the current 40-50% placement rate—a rate that has held steady for the last 20 years. Drawing on his experiences on the bench, Judge Nash is bringing several of the courtroom efforts that had promise to the project. Pilot projects in two of Los Angeles’ 19 Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) offices began nine months ago.
Finding and Prioritizing Family
The Office of Child Protection and the DCFS are working together to increase relative placements, enhance the role of relatives in the process, and begin using family-finding technology in a more consistent and comprehensive way.
The project places greater emphasis on social workers locating and attempting to place children with relatives at the front end. Social workers are given tools and resources to foster relative placements. For example, DCFS is providing resources to assist potential relative caregivers with criminal records who are eligible for exemptions so they can be considered as resources for children; with support, many can be good caregivers. Social workers also have access to family-finding technology to widen their search for potential relatives early in the process. When relatives are not immediately available, family-finding kicks in and helps place about 50% of children with relatives, said Judge Nash.
The social workers’ front-end work and a cultural change in DCFS are driving forces. “The social workers are encouraged in their offices by their supervisors and others to pay attention to and prioritize this issue,” said Judge Nash. “They’ve responded tremendously,” he said. “There’s a cultural change—a change in practice that is causing this to occur.”
Another aspect of the project is bringing as many family members together to see what they bring to the table. Often there are roles they can play outside of being a caregiver (e.g., transportation, respite care) to support the child and family.
The pilots do not yet engage lawyers or the courts but that will come once the project becomes universal throughout the system. Now the focus is on spreading the process throughout the agency. Once it is duplicated throughout the other DCFS offices and the project goes countywide, Judge Nash foresees sitting down with the court and all players who drive the process to discuss roles. The hope is to create an expectation that the process will occur in every court case. “If we can fix this issue at the agency level, it’s a whole lot easier for the court,” he said.
Changing Child Welfare’s Image
Judge Nash believes that doing a better job of engaging and supporting relatives will help change the face of child welfare. “I think the public perception of child welfare will change because it will begin to be viewed as a family-friendly system,” he said. A spillover effect of this change is that more people will be encouraged to become foster parents because they will see the process as friendlier. “The lack of a user-friendly process and a lack of overall support has probably been one of the main factors in the decline in people who want to be foster parents,” he said. “To the extent that we can increase the number of relative caregivers that will go a long way to addressing this foster care shortage.”
Results and Expansion
Judge Nash reported that in one office the number of new children coming into the system who have been placed with relatives during the nine-month pilot has exceeded 80%. In the other office, relative placements were over 70% during the first six months and more recently have risen to 80%. In fact, the second office had a 100% relative placement rate for children entering the system in its most recent month. “It’s clear from this project that this can be done,” said Judge Nash. “They’ve done this now consistently for over eight months.”
The project is contracting with Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization, to evaluate the pilot projects in a more systematic way. Judge Nash anticipates the evaluation will affirm the positive results the pilots have demonstrated so far and show that children and families are better off by using and engaging relatives in a more significant way.
With good results in the two pilots, the project is discussing expanding to the other 17 DCFS offices in Los Angeles. They will start slowly, said Judge Nash, expanding to a couple DCFS offices first. If the data shows positive results by the end of the year, then it will expand to the other DCFS offices on an expedited schedule.
Spreading the model statewide and expanding to other states is possible in the future. “There’s no magic to this,” said Judge Nash. “It’s really a matter of truly making this a priority,” he said. “There’s nothing about this that every agency in the country couldn’t do.”
Claire Chiamulera, legal editor at the ABA Center on Children and the Law, Washington, DC, is CLP’s editor.
Funding for this article was provided by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention through Award #2015-CT-BX-K001 to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Points of view or opinions expressed are those of the report contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the funder or the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.