“Just because you get the job doesn’t mean you know how to do it.” It was 1998. Judge Peggy Walker was starting her career in juvenile court in Douglas County, Georgia. A former teacher, she knew education was key to doing her job well, so she turned to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges’ (NCJFCJ) Resource Guidelines in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases. “I came to find the Resource Guidelines and they became the guide for me on the how to,” said Judge Walker.
Likewise, when Judge Egan Walker left criminal work six years ago to become a dependency court judge in Washoe County, Nevada he needed guidance. “I have 12 years of higher education. Not one moment of that instruction was about how you get this giant system—the child welfare system—to provide a good product for the children and families involved,” he said. He attended NCJFCJ’s Child Abuse and Neglect Institute, where he learned about the Resource Guidelines and how to apply them in his courtroom.
Their experiences are mirrored by judges nationwide who make life-altering decisions about children and families—cases complicated by federal and state child welfare laws, bureaucratic systems, and many parties with competing interests. The Resource Guidelines give judges the law and resources to guide decisions.
“What’s great about the Guidelines is they lay out these different laws in a way the judge can get quick and easy answers,” said Victoria Sweet, senior program attorney at NCJFCJ. Sweet trains juvenile court judges on the Resource Guidelines, bridging gaps in their knowledge. Sweet has noticed the boost in confidence judges have in their decisions once they start using the Guidelines. They have a reference to turn to with strategies from experienced judges that helps them promote best practices.
For juvenile court judges throughout the country, the Resource Guidelines have served as a roadmap since their release in 1995. Courts that committed to using the Resource Guidelines became part of NCJFCJ’s expansive Model Court program, with over 80 jurisdictions participating.
Time for a Refresh
As the child welfare field evolved, new laws and research emerged, and the Model Courts learned from their experiences, the time came to revamp the Resource Guidelines. The Enhanced Resource Guidelines, released May 2016, updated and expanded the original version, becoming the new framework for juvenile court judges and related professionals at every stage of a child dependency court proceeding. The Enhanced Resource Guidelines incorporated over 20 years of changes to the law and adopted new principles. NCJFCJ developed bench cards for each proceeding in a child welfare case to provide a quick reference on legal requirements and practice recommendations.
Springboard for Change
NCJFCJ is using the Enhanced Resource Guidelines as a foundation for training new and experienced dependency court judges and related professionals. Sweet has noticed that judges are starting to reference them, follow the best practice recommendations, and use them to try new courtroom approaches. Judge Peggy Walker and Judge Egan Walker’s courts are implementing the Enhanced Resource Guidelines, serving as test sites in the same way the Model Courts did for the original Resource Guidelines. Both judges are using the Enhanced Resource Guidelines to align practices, try new approaches, and create a shared understanding of expectations among professionals who enter their courts. Some areas they are focusing on are highlighted below.
Engaging Parents Early
Engaging parents early in court and having them more fully participate in decisions that impact them and their children is one change Judge Peggy Walker is making. She regularly asks parents, “What do you think? What would work for you? What would be a good way to approach this from your perspective?” This gives them a sense of involvement and that they are helping make decisions. “The one thing I’ve learned from doing this day in and day out is that the sooner you can get that engagement piece, that recognition of what the problems are and that desire to change, the more successful you’re going to be,” she said.
Urgency around Reunification
Moving system professionals and getting them to respect the urgency to reunify and restore families involved in the child welfare system is a focus in Judge Egan Walker’s court. “From my view, pervasive in the Enhanced Resource Guidelines is building a sense of urgency related to reunification of children with their parents,” he said. “If you dig deep into the Enhanced Resource Guidelines and the policies behind them, it really says the timeline needs to be contracted.” The guidelines give him the ability to say, “Let’s talk about what’s best for children and families in terms of outcomes and evidence.” They reinforce the need to push things up earlier and work toward reunification as quickly as possible.
“[P]art of the story of the Enhanced Resource Guidelines is people change,” said Judge Walker. It’s remarkable. Not everybody changes…but parents get better, particularly when the judicial system is responsive to their needs, comes from a strength-based approach and uses evidence-based practices—those people get better,” he said. “They’re reunifying with their kids and their kids get better.”
Child Trauma. Woven throughout the Enhanced Resource Guidelines is the concept of being trauma-informed and trauma-responsive. While training judges and courtroom professionals, Sweet has helped courts perform trauma assessments to identify where they could improve. This has led to changes. “You start seeing attitude shifts about how we are treating people when they come into court, how we are viewing them,” she said. “Court is combative and stressful and most people who end up being systems-involved have been trauma-involved in some way in their lives. Are we viewing them that way and are we responding appropriately?”
Courtroom changes have included using therapy dogs and making courtrooms more inviting for children. “In children’s courts, we’ve seen them paint murals on the walls of beautiful things that make the kids feel comfortable,” Sweet said. Some judges stash beanie baby pets behind the bench and allow children to pick one to hold during court hearings. Judges are ensuring comfortable temperatures and lighting in rooms and clear signage as ways to make the court process less stressful.
In Georgia, children are parties so they are present in court. Judge Walker said they now pay more attention to what is said and done in court in the presence of children. She routinely asks, “Are there things we’re going to address that perhaps the child should be excused, and do we have a child-friendly place?” The court created a reading room where children and parents can go and read books. Besides being an inviting, safe space for children, it promotes education and literacy, said Judge Walker.
Judge Walker takes precautions with children who have been removed from their parents and are dealing with separation. She prepares children before court hearings, telling them they will see their parents again and a plan will be made to help them reunify. She also pays attention to how she engages parents in the presence of their children, avoiding statements that are harsh or hold parents accountable. “We really want to understand the trauma they’ve experienced as part of that abuse and neglect and make sure our system isn’t retraumatizing them by the way that we conduct court,” she said.
Vicarious Trauma. The Enhanced Resource Guidelines also recognize that being trauma-informed includes being aware of the impact to professionals of working in juvenile court. “You can’t be a trauma-informed judge, or a trauma-informed attorney, if you’re so burned out and frazzled and traumatized by many of the things you’re observing,” said Sweet. The Enhanced Resource Guidelines promote self-care strategies to reduce and avoid burnout.
In Georgia, Judge Walker is sensitive to caseworkers’ experiences. “In a lot of ways, they’re as fragile as the parents we are dealing with because they’re the ones on the front lines,” she said. The caseworkers have visited the family’s home and have seen the children cry when separated from their parents. “The Enhanced Resource Guidelines suggest that we are thoughtful about how we’re approaching things from the perspective of every person. They help us focus broadly, not just on children and not just on parents but on the system as a whole.”
Project ONE—Holistic Approach to Families
Rare is the case in which a child or family is involved only in one system and rarer is the court that can handle all a family’s legal matters. This hit home for Judge Egan Walker when a young mother in his dependency court told him she had four court hearings in one week: her dependency court hearing, a delinquency matter involving her son, a criminal hearing before a different judge, and a municipal court hearing for a parking ticket.
NCJFCJ created Project ONE, which stands for One Judge, No Wrong Door, Equal Access to Justice, to streamline handling of multiple legal issues involving a child or family. Project ONE started with a narrow cross-section of children and families who cross two domains: child welfare and delinquency (“crossover youth”) then branched out to their parents and siblings and their related legal cases.
Judge Walker is implementing Project ONE in tandem with the Enhanced Resource Guidelines. Through the project and with guidance from the Enhanced Resource Guidelines, hearings involving a child or family that address multiple legal subjects and would traditionally be heard by separate courts are centralized and heard by one judge. “That’s what Project ONE is all about—really looking holistically at the needs of children and families and trying to apply courtroom resources to those needs.” said Judge Walker.
The guidelines help him address permanency for the child but also offer guidance when connections to broader legal system involvement exist on such issues as domestic violence or substance abuse. They ensure that decisions in one area don’t interfere with what is best for the child or family and promote permanency.
Indian Child Welfare
Indian child welfare is one area where the Enhanced Resource Guidelines have been strengthened since the original Resource Guidelines. For Judge Egan Walker, the complexity of these cases and the differing legal requirements and evidentiary standards make having a clear guide critical. “The Enhanced Resource Guidelines give you the formula—in the area of the Indian Child Welfare Act—that helps guide the process,” he said.
In addition to the law and best practices, judges learn the historical underpinnings of the law. When training judges on ICWA and the Enhanced Resource Guidelines, Sweet weaves in concepts of historical trauma, challenges Native communities have faced because of governmental policies, and why ICWA was implemented. She also addresses children’s rights to culture and to know who they are and where they come from. She has found judges value this context and some have applied the information to parallel settings like immigration.
Although not all child welfare laws addressed in the Enhanced Resource Guidelines apply to tribal courts, many best practices are relevant to them. According to Sweet, tribal courts can benefit from the guidelines because understanding the rules the state is following is key to collaborating successfully.
NCJFCJ is incorporating best practices from the recent ICWA Regulations that were released after the Enhanced Resource Guidelines were published. Sweet said the updates are underway and new bench cards are being developed.
Growing research on the needs of infants and toddlers in the child welfare system and the impact of removal and separation on their development is shifting courts’ responses to removal, placement, and other decisions. The Enhanced Resource Guidelines encourage judges to view decisions through the lens of the child. A companion bench card, Questions Every Judge and Lawyer Should Ask About Infants and Children in the Child Welfare System, offers specific questions for judges in cases involving very young children.
“It’s important for us to think through what we’re doing and make sure we’re meeting the needs of infants and toddlers because those first three years determine the trajectory of that person’s life forever,” said Judge Peggy Walker. In her court, she recognizes the important role of a young child’s attachment to his or her primary caregiver and the impact of removal on that attachment. “Every time you remove a child, even if you’re removing them to a better situation, you are impacting that child in a negative way because that primary attachment is the most important thing to that child,” she said.
Judge Walker avoids unnecessary removals and placements when it is safe for the child. She also orders supports and services to foster healthy attachments. She is careful to identify and address a parents’ underlying issues that may prevent a positive attachment with the child. “It’s very important for us to think about learning,” she said. “Children learn in that primary relationship. If [the person] is depressed and they’re not interacting with that child, it’s going to negatively impact that child’s learning. So, you’ve got to make sure you’re dealing with the issues of depression”
Trust is also critical for a young child’s healthy development and ability to form relationships. “If you can’t trust that your needs are going to be met because you cry and nothing happens, or you’re hungry and nothing happens, your diaper is soiled and nothing happens, then you don’t have the ability to establish relationships later in life based on trust because you’ve learned you can’t count on adults to do what needs to be done for you,” she said.
The Enhanced Resource Guidelines provide juvenile dependency court professionals new direction and a framework for decision making, but also open the door to innovation. As judges learn the laws, principles, and best practices, they will begin to make changes that are responsive to the guidelines and meet their community’s needs. Early implementation in Douglas County, Georgia and Washoe County, Nevada serve as a snapshot of court innovations that are underway.
Claire Chiamulera, legal editor at the ABA Center on Children and the Law, Washington, DC, is CLP’s editor.
Enhanced Resource Guidelines Key Principles
- Keep families together.
- Ensure access to justice.
- Cultivate cultural responsiveness.
- Engage families through alternate dispute resolution techniques.
- Ensure child safety, permanency, and well-being.
- Ensure adequate and appropriate family time.
- Provide judicial oversight.
- Ensure competent and adequately compensated representation.
- Advance development of adequate resources.
- Demonstrate judicial leadership and foster collaboration.
How the Enhanced Resource Guidelines Benefit All Advocates
The new guidelines are not just for judges. Attorneys, caseworkers and all child law practitioners benefit in the following ways:*
- They are an excellent resource on key laws in child welfare cases. They put legal requirements at your fingertips.
- Knowing how judges are trained helps attorneys know the expectations for their representation.
- The guidelines help attorneys know how to strike a balance between being adversarial and vigorously representing a client’s interests and working toward the ultimate goal of reunification or permanency for the child.
- They help attorneys recognize that “winning” in juvenile court differs from winning in other types of cases. A “win” is a family that’s strong and safe.
- If you know the basis for the judge’s training and the framework for the judge’s decision making, you will know what evidentiary high and low points to hit, what the judge is looking for, what fights to avoid, and what fights to pick.
- They help you prepare for court and determine the best angle to take in cases based on best practice recommendations.
- Having all system advocates have the same training promotes shared understanding that fosters collaboration, consistency across the system, and better family outcomes.
- Buy-in from court staff, attorneys, social workers and others makes it easier for courts to implement policies and practices that serve children and families.
*Drawn from interviews with Judge Peggy Walker, Judge Egan Walker, and Victoria Sweet.
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 contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the funder or the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.