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February 24, 2023 Feature

Making a Difference with Vulnerable Populations: Applying Innovative Court Efforts and Programs

By Hon. Stephanie Domitrovich, PhD

From juveniles in child welfare court to seniors in guardianship court, members of vulnerable populations appear in our courts every day. They come with unique needs and range in age, social status, intellect, and other factors that make them unique. Courts across the country are working hard to create innovative programs to address their unique needs. This edition of The Judges’ Journal provides judges, lawyers, and advocates of all types with the latest information and programs to make a difference in the lives of the vulnerable in their jurisdictions. The hope is our readers will tailor these concepts to their specific jurisdiction’s needs and protocols.

Along with these innovative efforts, recognizing the diligent efforts of judges and lawyers working in these areas is so important. Our Judicial Division is fortunate to have its own shining star in this area, our chair, the Honorable Ernestine S. Gray (Ret.). Juvenile Court Judge Gray devoted her judicial career of more than 36 years to improving the lives of vulnerable children who were removed from their homes, often because of poverty. Judge Gray recognized the trauma removal caused. She tirelessly advocated for their rights by distinguishing poverty from neglect and ensuring these children were safely and expeditiously returned home. She is responsible for lowering the number of New Orleans children held in foster care by 89 percent between 2011 and 2017, compared to an increase of 8 percent nationally during that same time. Her approach was considered unique in reforming a troubled foster care system. And her courtroom was described as a preschool, with dozens of stuffed animals providing an atmosphere of comfort to children appearing in her court. Judge Gray gave each child a stuffed bear and a book. In honor of her retirement, a “Calming Studio” was created with a trained professional to teach children stress techniques for managing their emotions before appearing in court.

Authors in this edition share their experiences and advice about innovative programs to implement in our readers’ jurisdictions. State District Court Judge David M. Connors of Utah encourages courts to utilize the Utah courts’ proactive approach to improving their court guardianship processes. He describes the success of Utah courts’ collaboration with Utah WINGS (Working Interdisciplinary Networks of Guardianship Stakeholders) and other stakeholders to improve the guardianship services and processes. State Court Judge Linda Marquis of Clark County, Nevada, describes the importance of virtual hearings during the pandemic as well as post-pandemic. Judge Marquis details the positive effects that virtual hearings have on their vulnerable population, especially with their relatives participating. State Appellate Court Judge Leanna Weissmann of Indiana explains the vital role of emerging adult courts to meet the needs and issues regarding vulnerable adults who commit crimes before their 25th birthday. Judge Weissmann describes how emerging adult courts effectively engage these individuals by investigating how they learn and what incentives are most effective. She also explains how emerging adult courts help address racial justice issues. Master in Chancery Selena E. Molina describes how the Delaware Chancery Court is ensuring the care and protection of its vulnerable participants by monitoring guardianships and conservatorships with annual reporting and accounting procedures. She discusses the various reports and resources that assist the Delaware Chancery Court in making significant improvements to its court procedures.

Clinical Associate Professor of Law/Supervising Attorney Martha M. Mannix explains the University of Pittsburgh Law School’s Elder Law Clinic, which has a dual purpose in training future lawyers as well as addressing the legal service needs of low-income older adults. She describes the benefits to the students and the vulnerable people this clinic serves. Author and graduate nursing student Colette Masunaga informs our readers about the vulnerable population of Native Hawaiians in Hawaii, who have the shortest life expectancy compared to other ethnic groups. She promotes the need for more Native Hawaiians to become nurses to address the “undue burden of health and social disparities.” And the newly named chief justice of Pennsylvania, Debra Todd, highlights the various statewide, web-based projects and accomplishments of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Elder Law Task Force. She details the Task Force’s efforts regarding guardianships, elder abuse, access to justice, and new legislative efforts to criminalize improper posting on the internet of care-dependent persons as well as financial exploitation of the elderly and care-dependent persons.

Our New Year’s wish is that this edition will inspire and assist our readers in making a difference with the vulnerable populations they serve in their communities. Happy and healthy New Year in 2023 to all!

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By Hon. Stephanie Domitrovich, PhD

Judge Stephanie Domitrovich, PhD, is a senior judge for Pennsylvania, after being an elected general jurisdiction trial judge for over 32 years.