November 01, 2015

Giving Youth a Voice in Court in New Jersey

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

New Jersey is giving youth a say in their permanency hearings, bucking a national trend. A 2006 national study revealed only 18% of youth in the child welfare system participate in their permanency hearings, even though it is considered best practice and federal law supports it. 

State Statute and Protocol

New Jersey statute (N.J.S.A. 30:4C-61.2) provides for notice and for children of all ages to attend and participate in their permanency hearings. To ensure youth benefit from this statute, New Jersey’s Children in Court Improvement Committee created a protocol in 2013 and started using it in three counties. The effort was supported by the National Child Welfare Resource Center on Legal & Judicial Issues, and the ABA Bar Youth Empowerment Project, both projects at the ABA Center on Children and the Law.

A recent report, Youth Participation in Court: Protocol Pilot Project, Year 1 2014, Executive Summary, shares the results of New Jersey’s efforts in the three counties. Surveys were conducted with participants, including youth, judges, attorneys, caseworkers, CASA supervisors and volunteers, parents and resource parents (see sidebar for survey details). The results uncovered successes and challenges. Overall the results are positive and show the value of involving youth in court.

According to the report, the protocol included the following components: 

  • Judges in the counties emphasized the expectation that children would attend court hearings.

  • Team meetings were held with leadership and selected others in each county to begin planning. 

  • Each county developed an action plan to implement the protocol.

  • Training sessions were held with key staff including judges, court staff, child welfare agency supervisors and management, children’s attorneys, parents’ attorneys and CASA. There was also follow-up training to reach both leadership and direct service workers.

  • The state Office of Law Guardian (children’s attorneys) developed training materials for their attorneys. 

Successes

Most youth had good court experiences. The survey findings offered little support for common concerns about youth attending court: attending court will upset youth, court is not youth-friendly, youth won’t have a chance to meaningfully participate, and youth do not want to attend court. In contrast, most youth had good experiences. When youth were asked after attending court:

  • If they were glad they came, 97% said yes. 

  • If they would come again, 99% said they would. 

  • If they were able to talk about something important to them, 90% said they talked about the issue of greatest importance to them.

  • If they thought the judge understood them, 89% said they felt the judge heard or understood them.

  • The positive courtroom experiences were partly attributed to good preparation by attorneys, caseworkers and others before hearings.


Youth benefitted from attending and participating in court. When asked about the benefits/perceptions of court:

  • 81% of youth felt their court experience was ‘Very Good’ (48%) or ‘Good’ (33%)

  • 66% of adult stakeholders said there was a benefit to youth participating

Youth participation improved cases outcomes. The adult participants said having youth participate in their permanency hearings benefitted case outcomes in the following ways:

  • 69% of adults said children had a better understanding of the case plan/goal 
  • 52% of adults said the court had better information/more information 
  • 41% of adults said issues were prioritized/clarified

Challenges 

Prolonged or delayed court hearings and scheduling issues were challenges. Court calendars were affected by youth participation 55% of the time, with longer court hearings (76%) and delayed court hearings (50%) identified as the most common impacts. 

Getting youth to court hearings interfered with youth participation about 30% of the time. Difficulty getting transportation and youth not wanting to attend were factors in getting youth to court. 

Fitting court appearances around school schedules prevented youth from participating in court, according to 41% of adults surveyed.

Tips for Success

Drawing on the experiences implementing the youth in court protocol in three counties, the report offered the following strategies for other jurisdictions:

  • Ensure attorneys, caseworkers, and others take time to prepare youth for court before hearings.

  • Identify and address transportation challenges. Consider alternative forms of participation (Skype, closed circuit TV) when a child cannot attend in person. 

  • Plan for court scheduling issues (delays, added time), recognizing the value of youth participation.

  • Accommodate special needs of younger children (breaks, toys, short appearances, support person).

  • Document the reasons why youth do not want to attend court to improve understanding of any concerns and promote solutions.

  •  When a child’s academic and extracurricular activities conflict with court hearings, consider holding hearings after school or using alternative ways to allow the youth to participate remotely.

Next Steps

New Jersey is implementing the protocol statewide in 2015 and using a similar survey process to assess progress. It continues to build on efforts in the three original pilot counties, integrating refinements based on the survey results and lessons learned. The state’s annual Children in Court Conference serves as a forum to train attorneys, judges, and others on the protocol and increase awareness and understanding of the importance of involving youth in court. Another report will be released updating results based on the statewide expansion. Preliminary results show similar trends in the data.

Claire Chiamulera, legal editor, ABA Center on Children and the Law, is CLP’s editor.