April 01, 2016

Involving Youth in Court: Lessons from States

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.

Youth Engagement Projects focusing on court participation improve outcomes for youth in foster care. In most court contexts, the rules strongly favor firsthand information. Yet when a foster youth’s life is discussed, often youth are not heard from directly. New data show that youth want to come to court and courts are able to make better decisions when they do. 

State Court Assessments

Several U.S. jurisdictions have studied these issues. Many efforts were supported by state Court Improvement Programs. Evaluations included surveys of youth, attorneys, judges, and social workers, as well as court observations. In many cases, data was collected where states were making efforts to ensure and improve youth engagement, including: 

  • trainings and workshops providing youth and professionals guidance on engaging youth 
  • changes to court policies or procedures 
  • tools for youth, attorneys, and others

The data show many foster youth want to participate in decisions about their lives. Judges learn more about the youth coming before them and report having a better understanding of what youth need and want and why. Responses from caseworkers, CASAs, and GALs/attorneys also reflect positive benefits of youth participation. 

The following themes and findings emerged from reviews of seven assessments completed in New Jersey, Washington, Delaware, Vermont, Kansas, and Colorado. (See sidebar for assessment details.) 

Decision making improves when youth are in court.

New Jersey 

  • 33% of adults (judges, attorneys, caseworkers) said youth contributed new information to the court 

Washington

  • 40% of judges said the interviews with youth were quite useful; 
  • 25% said very useful; and 
  • 35% said a little useful

Kansas 

  • 81% of judges said youth presence impacted decisions 
  • 51% said they find out more information from the young person 
  • 54% said it helped them make decisions 
  • 64% observed things about the youth not reflected in records 
  • Youth believe the judges know enough to make fair decisions 

Vermont 

  • 82% of youth think better decisions are made if they are there 

Youth want to come to court.

New Jersey 

  • 99% of youth that came to court wanted to come back 

Delaware 

  • 47% of youth said they ‘always’ attended their court hearings; 18% said they ‘almost always’ did; 21% said they have ‘a few times’
  • Youth attended “To know what’s going on; know plans”; “Because it’s my life; I like to have a say; so I can talk to the judge”; “Because I should” 

Vermont 

  • 71% of youth usually/often attended court hearings 
  • 77% believed it was very important to have the option to attend 

Colorado 

  • Youth wanted judges to hear their voices, and to provide direct input about their situations and placements 
  • A majority of youth surveyed felt they didn’t have a voice and wished they had 

Kansas 

  • Youth said they want to go to their hearings 

Court is usually a positive experience for youth, even though they understand they will not always get what they want. 

New Jersey 

  • Youth said the court experience was ‘very good’ (48%) or ‘good’ (33%) even though many of the same youth noted that they did not or might not always get what they wanted 
  • Open-ended comments reflected specific examples, such as not going home with a relative, as well as general statements about the uncertainties of court hearings 

Vermont 

  • 62% said they usually/often felt listened to, whether or not they agreed with decisions 

Washington 

  • 90% said they understood what happened in court 
  • 79% said the judge made a fair decision 
  • 77% were glad they came to court 
  • 63% said the judge knew enough to make decisions about them; court was what they thought it would be like; they knew when the next court hearing would be

Youth felt heard and understood. 

New Jersey 

  • 89% youth said the judge heard and understood what they were trying to say 

Delaware 

  • 56-63% strongly agreed the judge listened to them, cared about them, and they felt comfortable talking to them 

Vermont 

  • 84% said the judge asked if they understood the decisions being made 
  • 75% said the judge asked questions about their life 
  • 74% said they understood what happened in court 
  • 64% reported the judge makes fair decisions 
  • 63% were glad to go to hearings 
  • 61% felt comfortable asking the judge questions 

Washington 

  • 66% reported talking to the judge during the hearing 
    • 90% of those who talked to the judge felt the judge spoke directly to them, listened, and they felt ‘OK’ answering questions 
    • 64% of those said they told the judge things they didn’t want to say in front of everyone else
    • 47% said it is not hard to talk to the judge in front of everyone 

Kansas 

  • Youth said talking to the judge made them feel listened to, 
  • important, and comfortable 

Youth often reported being concerned about placement, school, permanency, & visitation. 

New Jersey

  • 41% of youth were concerned about going to live with parents/relatives 
  • 62% of adults said the youth spoke during the hearing: 
    • 56% talked about permanency plans 
    • 41% about placements 
    • 32% about school 

Washington 

  • Judges said they learned more about placement (49%) and visitation (43%) during interviews with youth 
  • Of the youth who asked for an interview with the judge, 64% told the judge things they didn’t want to say in front of everyone else. 
    • 54% of the time it was about permanency 
    • 53% about visits with family 
    • 40% about school 
    • 34% about safety/well-being 

Kansas

  • Judges reported youth discussing matters important to them including: 
    • Placements 64% 
    • School 64% 
    • Health 64% 
    • Visitation 51% 
    • Permanent connections 44% 

Colorado 

  • Youth reported that judges may have a lot of information, but not accurate or personal information about them, or the information from caseworkers was negative 
  • Youth wished the judge would ask them directly about their wants and needs in placement; even privately or submitted in writing 

Barriers to getting youth to court can be overcome. 

New Jersey 

  • 70% of the adults reported no barriers to getting children to court 
  • And 65% of the time, when there were barriers, they were able to overcome them 

Washington 

  • 86% of youth had no transportation issues 
  • 10% did because they lived or were traveling from out of town, or were incarcerated or receiving inpatient treatment 

Policy & Practice Tips 

The data support key practices that support youth engagement1 including: 

  • Youth should be present at their dependency court hearings. 

  • In limited cases it is acceptable for a youth to not attend her dependency court hearings (youth declines after being notified; judge determines it’s contrary to the child’s interests).

  • Lack of transportation should not be a reason to exclude the youth. 

  • If the judge finds it is contrary to the youth’s interest to participate in person, she should consider alternatives before excluding the youth from the hearing, such as temporarily exclude the parent/guardian, have the youth attend a portion of the hearing, Talk to the judge in chambers, use video technology, letter and hearsay statements). 

  • The judge should document whether the youth is present and if not, why. The judge should also specify whether the youth should be brought to the next hearing. 

  • The judge should engage the youth and explain the proceeding and ruling in age-appropriate language. 

  • A child-friendly hearing notice should be provided to the youth.

  • Hearings should occur without requiring an extended wait by the youth, should account for school schedules, be set for after school hours for school aged children, and every effort should be made to call cases involving youth who are present first so they can leave and get back to school. 

  • The judge should allow the youth to bring a support person with her to the hearing. 

  • The youth should be properly prepared before the hearing and debriefed after the hearing, as to who will be present and their roles, anticipated questions and topics, whether they’ll be able to speak to judge in chambers, and what she should wear and how she should act. 

  • The judge should ensure the child has adequate representation. Even where representation is under a best interests model, as was true in some of the above states, youth direct involvement in their case supports good representation.

Conclusion 

Foster youth want to be involved in decisions about their lives, especially about placements, permanency, school, and visitation. Youth and professionals agree that the firsthand information they can contribute allows courts to make better decisions. The data show the importance of the adage many youth have been telling policymakers for years – “Nothing about us without us.”

Endnotes

1 ABA Bar-Youth Empowerment Project and National Child Welfare Resource Center on Legal and Judicial Issues. “Engaging Youth in Court: Sample Court Policy.” ABA Child Law Practice 30(3), May 2011. Washington DC: ABA Center on Children and the Law.

For a list of resources on children in court, view the full report

Sharon G. Elstein, MS, is the research director at the ABA Center on Children and the Law. 

Kristin Kelly, JD, directs the Youth Engagement Project at the ABA Center on Children and the Law.

Scott TrowbridgeJD, is a staff attorney working on several projects at the ABA Center on Children and the Law.

See more information about the Youth Engagement Project.