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A foster child in Travis County, Texas…
- receives classical guitar lessons through a court-based program. After completing the program, the child performs at a court swearing-in ceremony for CASA volunteers and receives a classical guitar to keep.
- joins the Future Farmers of America (FFA) program at his school and develops a love for goats. He gets to raise and show a goat at a local farm show where he wins a prize. He beams with pride.
- celebrates her quinceañera, a traditional 15th birthday event for Hispanic girls. She chooses a beautiful dress to wear and has a blast with friends and family. She treasures the event’s focus on family and society and feels closer to her culture.
Whether music, farming, cultural experiences, art, sports or another area of interest, children in foster care who enter Judge Darlene Byrne’s court in Austin, Texas, are leaving with something new: a childhood activity. Not just any activity, but one that appeals to, inspires, motivates, and challenges them.
The 2014 Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act has opened doors to “normal activities of daily life” for children in foster care that were previously off limits or difficult to secure. The Act’s "normalcy provisions" ensure children in care experience normal childhoods by allowing them to join extracurricular and enrichment activities. (For background, see “The Reasonable and Prudent Parent Standard,” ABA Child Law Practice 35(10), by Heidi Redlich Epstein and Anne Marie Lancour.)
Judge Byrne, presiding judge of the 126th District Court, Travis County, TX, since January 2001, is working to implement the provisions in her court. She has taken a collaborative approach that leverages community partnerships to secure and fund a robust array of activities for children in care. She shared the approaches and strategies she is taking to implement the normalcy provisions.
Make normalcy an expectation.
The normalcy provisions do something Judge Byrne believes jurisdictions should have been doing all along. When a state takes custody of a child, it acts as the child’s parent. “One of the best things a parent can do for children is to allow them to have a normal childhood – to have sleepovers, cultural experiences, and extracurricular activities,” she said. “It’s just a daily expectation and a requirement of being a kid in a healthy home.”
In Travis County, extracurricular activities have become a part of each child’s service plan. The expectation is that extracurricular activities are one part of a child’s family plan of service and cannot be overlooked. Lawyers for children and CASA volunteers are taught to view this expectation as equally important as whether a child is getting therapy or recommended evaluations. “We need to know what goes in that box and not leave it,” said Judge Byrne. She encourages advocates to expose children to an array of options with the goal of finding at least one activity that interests them. “We’re working from it being an expectation,” she said.
Form professional and community partnerships and share your vision.
Support from child welfare professionals and community partners help make normalcy activities for children a reality in Travis County. To gain support and form partnerships, Judge Byrne holds meetings with stakeholders outside court to share her vision that every child in care gets to do at least one activity of interest during their time in care. She stresses the importance of bringing the people who can make that happen together in a room to discuss the vision and develop a structure around it systemically to make it happen.
As a National Council of Juvenile and Family Courts “model court” since 2008, Judge Byrne’s court benefits from a well-established network of professionals and community partners committed to supporting children and families who enter the court. She regularly meets with an executive committee (including legal and child welfare representatives) and a community collaborative council (including community partners who touch the lives of children in the child welfare system). Judge Byrne has used these meetings to introduce the normalcy provisions, share her vision and goals, seek guidance and support, and form partnerships to fund and sustain normalcy activities.
Partnerships with two nonprofits that have served on the community collaborative council for over a decade have proven invaluable in funding normalcy activities for children in her court. The nonprofits are flexible in how they use their funding. That flexibility allows creativity and freedom in supporting children’s participation in diverse activities that interest them. “If a child lives next to a dojo (martial arts training center) and is interested in that, we have the funding through our two nonprofits to make that happen,” said Judge Byrne.
Start with what you have.
Once the need was identified and vision shared, Judge Byrne worked with the community partners and others to identify existing resources. “Allow everyone to give their suggestions about what they know about in the community,” she said. “Reach out to churches, local schools, Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts and start from there. Start with the basics.” After building a menu of existing resources, meetings with representatives from those resources were held to identify what activities they could offer children in care – summer camps, vacation Bible School, church choirs, school clubs and so forth. “It’s really getting off the bench and starting from a place of What do we have and how do we weave it together for our children?” she said.
Help children identify and prioritize their interests.
To help children identify interests in a structured way, Judge Byrne is developing a child-friendly resource table with a form for the child to fill out that offers a menu of extracurricular activities spanning music, athletics, art, volunteer opportunities, internships and other categories. The plan is to have all children age 10 and up who enter Judge Byrne’s court complete the form and prioritize their top five activities. Ensuring each child does at least one of their top five activities during their time in care will be the goal. Once in place as a routine step for each child, the form will be woven into the child’s court file and connections will be made to support children’s desired activities.
Judge Byrne’s court is focusing on children age 10 and up for systemwide implementation of the normalcy provisions. This is because younger children have more opportunities for structured socialization through day care, Montessori Schools, afterschool care, YMCA programs and the like. “Once the child is over 10, they start losing that structure of really good peer-to-peer socialization and you need to craft it a little differently and purposefully,” said Judge Byrne. She still ensures young children are accessing available programs and are participating in activities and socialization opportunities that they provide.
Seek input from the child and those close to the child.
As much as possible, Judge Byrne hears directly from children who come to court about the kinds of activities that interest them. Depending on the child’s comfort level, she will either seek the child’s input in court, privately in-chambers, or through the child’s lawyer or CASA. She also seeks input from the child’s parent(s) since they know best what activities the child has been involved in and their interests. If a difference of opinion arises between the child and parent about activities, she goes with what the child wants to do. “They’re the one at the heart of the case and I want to make sure that I’m trying to meet their needs at the highest level and hear their voice.”
Address normalcy in court.
In-court questioning. In Travis County, each child receives a Child and Adolescent Needs and Strength Assessment (CANS assessment) within 30 days of entering state custody. Included in the assessment are recommended extracurricular activities for the child. The CANS assessment findings are included in Judge Byrne’s court report so by the second review hearing after the child’s removal from home she knows what the CANS assessment says regarding extracurricular activities. She’ll use those findings to craft questions about those activities and ensure efforts are being made to allow the child to participate.
Questions Judge Byrne routinely asks include:
- What are the child’s interests?
- Who knows the child’s interests?
- What can we do to fill this need?
- What’s the plan?
- What are we going to expose the child to?
Court orders. Depending on the answers to the in-court questions, Judge Byrne makes specific orders. If a child is interested in music, for example, she might order a referral to Kids in a New Groove (KING), a local nonprofit that provides two-to-three years of in-home music instruction and an instrument of the child’s choice. Similarly, if equine issues interest a child, she will order the department to secure an equine camp or therapy for the child. “It certainly bubbles up to issuing a court order to secure those services,” she said. “Then at the next hearing I follow back up on them.”
Address barriers creatively.
Transportation. Transportation is the greatest barrier to providing normalcy activities in Travis County. Heavy reliance on relative caregivers (70-73% of children in care are in relative care) adds to this challenge. “Often our relatives are overwhelmed and underfinanced, so transportation with relative placements is probably our #1 barrier,” said Judge Byrne. One way this barrier is surmounted is by concentrating activities during spring breaks, holidays, or summer breaks rather than sustaining them year-round. Judge Byrne is also exploring ride vouchers through Uber and Lyft to get children home from afterschool activities.
Impoverished relative placements. For relative caregivers, many of whom are stretched financially, just meeting the educational, medical and therapeutic needs of the children in their care demands all their time and resources. The add-on of extracurricular activities can be too much, said Judge Byrne. “Typically, when we’re faced with that we don’t want to lose the placement,” she said. She will turn to CASA volunteers to assist with transportation but that’s not a long-term solution. A workaround, like addressing transportation challenges, is to focus on holidays and breaks and to do a deep-dive of one week of fun camp or some enrichment activity for the children.
Placement stability. Maintaining continuity in normalcy activities can be a challenge when placements change, especially if a child’s activity is unique to his or her school or placement. While most schools have basketball and track, a Future Farmers of America (FFA) program would be unique to a rural placement. “If I move them now to an urban environment, many urban schools don’t have an FFA so I’ve got to start thinking about how to fulfill that interest,” said Judge Byrne. She will then work to identify like activities, such as volunteering at an animal shelter or pet store, to keep that interest alive.
Reap the benefits.
Each child who participates in normalcy activities in Judge Byrne’s court experiences many benefits and positive changes. “As a judicial officer, you are going to get back tenfold after you have implemented this as a basic requirement of every case plan for every child on your docket,” said Judge Byrne. She cited improved school performance, raised self-esteem, creativity, empathy for others, pride in accomplishments, exposure to new experiences, character development and cultural connectedness among the benefits and positive impacts she has seen among the children in her court who engage in normalcy activities.
She described life-changing experiences for these children. Some learned how to play a musical instrument for the first time and performed before a live audience. Others discovered new interests like farming and horseback riding. Some children volunteered at an animal shelter where they developed a sense of empathy and caring for something other than themselves. Others got to participate in cultural celebrations and rites of passage like attending their prom. Many improved in school and worked to keep their grades up so they could stay active in extracurricular activities.
“I’ve just seen amazing things happen with access to normalcy activities,” said Judge Byrne. “The pride the kids have in their accomplishments, just giving them something to accomplish, and seeing their self-esteem blossom is so well worth the effort.”
Claire Chiamulera, legal editor, ABA Center on Children and the Law, is the editor of CLP Today.
Travis County, TX: Facts & Figures
Location: The 126th District Court, Travis County, is in Austin, the state capitol of Texas.
Where children in care are placed: While efforts are made to place children taken into state custody in Travis County, there are not enough foster homes to house all children so many are placed in neighboring counties. In contrast to Travis County, which is largely urban, neighboring counties are mostly rural. The goal is to keep children within 50 miles of their home neighborhoods but most are placed within 150 miles or less.
Population: 1.2 million
Number of children in state custody:
- 850 before termination of parental rights
- 340 post-termination of parental rights
- 300 in court-ordered services (a petition has been filed but the state hasn’t taken custody because there is a family member or friend who is safe and the state does not have to take custody; parents are somewhat engaged in their services).
- 45-50% Caucasian
- 35-40% Hispanic
- 11% African American
- 4% Asian
- <1% Native American
This article is one in a series on innovative court approaches to address pressing child welfare issues. 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.