June 29, 2020 National Conference of State Trial Judges

Being a Judge in Juvenile Court During COVID-19

By Hon. Mark Jones, Indianapolis, IN

When I was asked to write this brief article about what it’s like being a judge in a juvenile court during the pandemic, my first thought was: “That’s easy: frustrating. No, inspiring. Well, yes, both frustrating and inspiring. Patience required. Where is the blueprint? Thankful. Disjointed. Well, …” And my mind has raced ever since, thinking about all of the experiences I’ve had with parents and children “in front of” me, with the magistrates, office manager, court reporters and bailiffs with whom I am blessed, the probation officers, guardians ad litem, DCS[1] case workers, law enforcement officers, and so many others that listing them would take up this entire piece. The village, right?

Between our two courts in our Juvenile Division, we went from approximately eighty in-person docket sessions per week to approximately 12 to 15. At the very beginning of the shutting-down, we tried to continue hearing our daily, in-person, initials, denials and dispositions in which the children were detained, as well as initial hearings in CHINS. That quickly changed, however, to hearing all cases remotely, via WebEx. Did I mention the E.C. and our Court Administration, including IT Guy and his staff? More villagers; I couldn't have made that switch so quickly without them. No more denial hearings in delinquency cases or adjudicative hearings in CHINS or TPRs; in other words, no more hearings – for a while – of those cases in which we’re all used to face-to-face examination and cross-examination. No more hearings, even remotely, where all the service providers will tell us how they met with the kids in their homes, or foster homes, or residential placements, because everyone is shut down. We might have a report that says they tried to see the kids via video… but did the placement have that capability? Hearings where we’re lucky to actually see the parents or the kids, or maybe even lucky to have them appear telephonically.

In the first week of May, we geared up and started hearing the normal number of docket sessions, but virtually and with a greatly reduced number of cases held during each session, and still with no contested evidentiary hearings. No more “cattle call” dockets. We all learned a little bit more about expectations for the length of certain kinds of hearings, how to call parents in to a virtual session when they can’t get into one, and how to mute people. Our Detention Center has set up a camera and audio in a conference room so the youth can participate in a hearing, and if the parents cannot join the hearing via the internet or telephone, they can come into our receiving area where a camera with audio has also been set up. 

More questions, some of which seem silly, but nonetheless show both the lack of a sufficient emergency plan for such a pandemic and the deep thinking of all (or most) of the villagers once it started. Just a few of those questions:

  • Who is an “essential” member of staff who can come to court without violating the Emergency Orders of the Governor, Mayor and Indiana Supreme Court?
  • Given the delays in our ability to do trials in-person, which detained kids can be released without serious threat to the community or the child?
  • If I order a child held in detention, how long is he or she going to have to stay there before their denial hearing (trial) can be held?
  • Can I leave this child in his/her home, because if I don’t, I don’t know when the parents will get to hold him or her? And if I do, how safe are they? Who will really check on him/her?
  • What are the kinds of hearings that can be held remotely?
  • Which cannot?
  • How do I look sufficiently “judicial” on video?
  • Do I wear my robe for the hearings?
  • Can the clients talk confidentially with their counsel during the hearing when they are in two different geographical areas, and one is on a phone and the other a laptop, in the middle of a video hearing? Or even if they’re right next to each other but separated by acrylic dividers?
  • Can’t some agency or generous company get laptops, or at least mobile phones, for parents who can’t afford them and find themselves in the middle of this stuff?
  • How do I ensure that children can see their parents if I’ve ordered them separated, given the situation?
  • What will our staff members with young children do for child care?
  • When can we – or should we – get back to “normal”?          

I’m sure that everyone around the state and country are experiencing the same or similar circumstances and quandaries. I am with you. I have learned new respect for the abilities of judicial officers, administration, HR, our staffs, our bailiffs and deputy sheriffs who look out for us, and our elected officials to work together and look out for the common good while protecting those far less fortunate than us. I was before –  but am even more so now – reminded how privileged I am; and I am confronted hourly with reminders of how poverty and the lack of meaningful access to food, housing, and decent health care put so many of our children at risk. And if four months ago lack of good internet access wasn’t seen as significant, it certainly is now if you want our children to have access to education and our families to have equal access to the courts.

I’ve probably gone beyond “brief” for this piece, so the editors can have a heyday, but I want to share what I learned from “my” magistrates when I told them I wanted their input for this; after all, they are the ones who are deep in the trenches. WARNING: I asked for a sentence, a paragraph, or even haiku. Didn’t think I’d get the last one….

Coronavirus
Shelter at home, work from home
COVID dash 19

While the entire world was in panic mode for much of the early part of this crisis, the courts have had to drown out all the noise and find innovative ways to bring order in the midst of chaos.  I have been so impressed by the resolve of the court staff as a whole.  It’s times like this that renew my faith in people….

In a word: “frustrating”.  No agency, no service provider, no party and no parent is “hitting on all cylinders”.  This observation also applies to myself; whether it’s a noticeable deflation when I see 12 people waiting for a hearing that will be simply reset or an inability to motivate through my words because they are failing........generally.

…Also, the fear and anxiety that have accompanied this pandemic can be crippling at times – because something outside our understanding controls our fate. I can’t help but think that this is how parents and children feel while involved in the child welfare system – and with me by extension. So, this pandemic has profoundly reminded me of the struggles of the human condition and the resilience of the human spirit. And while I’m not sure how this translates into my professional world, I cannot help but think that these reminders will make me a slightly different judicial officer in some way. Hopefully, a better one.  

Zoom court in session
Black robe over pajamas
Unmute yourself please

I don’t know if this was the article that was requested, but it’s what I know. Take care of yourselves and each other. Oh, I almost forgot: whenever we get back to the new “normal”, can I still have my mute button?