What happened at the National Judicial Leadership Summit on Child Welfare

If you didn’t attend the national child welfare summit…

The National Judicial Leadership Summit on Child Welfare last week in Minneapolis focused on the need to more effectively help families in crisis and the need to change the system in order to reduce the number of children who are removed from their families.

The Opening

Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Anne McKeig spoke about a boy who went from foster home to foster home and as an adult, ended up in jail, where years later Justice McKeig visited him so she could apologize to him. The young man cried. He said he didn’t know anyone cared about him.

“Let’s spend the next day and a half so we can help people like him,” she said.

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady said, “We know so much more than we knew 10 years ago,” when the summit last convened. “What works is not aligned with what we’re doing. We still only give those successful interventions to a small percentage of families who can benefit from them.”

He urged the summit’s attendees to be bold and ambitious as they develop action plans, with the goal of more effectively helping children and their families.

“The system is fundamentally flawed because it waits until something bad happens,” said Jerry Milner, associate commissioner of the Children’s Bureau, who spoke after Chief Justice Cady.

Most of the 450,000 children in foster care are there because of neglect, and poverty contributes to the problem. The current system is too quick to remove children from their families, without appreciating the stress this causes to the children. “We cause more harm than we protect them from,” said Milner, who referred to a child who had 88 different placements in 12 years.

“Imagine having to pack up everything you have every month and a half and learn new rules and make new friends,” he said. “Who among us in this room believes that is in the best interest of a child. It’s reprehensible that we do this to children and then blame the children for what they do. Our children deserve better than that. Their parents deserve better than that. I would say our system is better than that. We can create a system that does bring justice to families. The status quo is not acceptable because the outcomes are not acceptable. We have a system that is focused on fixing the damage rather than on trying to prevent the damage.”

To serve children and families more effectively, Milner said the courts need to do a better job of listening to families and shift their focus from rescuing children to valuing parenting. He also said parents deserve high-quality legal representation.

Amelia Franck Meyer, founder and CEO of Alia Innovations, a family advocacy company, called foster care “a failed experiment” that should be discontinued. “Human young are the most vulnerable mammals on the planet,” she said. “…When we remove children from their families, we create a primal wound. We know this causes life-long predictive harm. Removing children from their families does not save them. It destroys them.”

She challenged the attendees, saying, “We are ready today to fix this, and if it were your family, you would figure it out.”

The ‘fishbowl’ panel discussion

This group of former foster children, foster parents and birth parents gave their perspective on how the child welfare system largely failed them. They offered this advice:

  • Good attorneys often lead to better outcomes, and all children and parents should have access to good attorneys.
  • Don’t tell foster children that that their birth parents are bad people.
  • Facilitate better and more frequent communication. For example, let biological parents talk with foster parents and form a partnership.
  • If child welfare laws don’t make sense and are ineffective, lobby lawmakers to change them.
  • Value every person.
  • Assume nothing. Don’t assume someone has ever received a word of encouragement and offer that.
  • People can change, and that includes parents who make bad decisions caused by trauma.

‘The Mississippi Miracle’

Judge Trent Favre of Hancock County, Miss., was one of the summit’s stars because his court has had a 65-percent reduction in the number of children who have been removed from their homes in less than two years. He encouraged other judges to adopt a strategy to engage parents in the courtroom, and he shared these tips:

  • Make it clear to parents that your job is to help them and their children.
  • Transform courtrooms and waiting rooms into inviting places by softening the colors of walls, hanging artwork and providing children’s books. Judge Favre invited local artists to provide original artwork that incorporated messages of hope.
  • Empower parents by encouraging them to express themselves in the courtroom.
  • Get to know the parents, and don’t prejudge them. Offer them a clean slate.
  • Empathize with parents. Judge Favre said that didn’t come easy for him, so he received empathy training that has improved his interactions with people.
  • Be emotional. It’s OK for judges to cry.

The Five Themes

The summit revolved around five themes: 1) ensuring the voice of families is heard, 2) delivering high-quality legal representation, 3) preventing the unnecessary entry of children into foster care, 4) ensuring fairness and access to justice, and 5) leading reform from the supreme court and AOC.

Each state, territory, and tribe brought a leadership team, including chief justices, judges, state court administrators, child welfare directors, and others, that developed action plans that incorporated those themes.

#1: Courts Incorporating the Voice of Families

One of the main messages was that courts can’t be “child-centric” without also focusing on children’s families, and allowing the family voice to drive progress in individual cases as well as system reform efforts.

 Kathleen Quigley, presiding juvenile court judge in Pima County, Ariz., encouraged other judges to always avoid shaming parents and to pay attention to detail. Are the courts’ lobbies, waiting areas and courtrooms inviting places? Are the facial tissues soft? (She has shopped for soft tissue for her courtroom.) Are judges calling the parents by their names, or just mom or dad?

Anita Fineday, who was a tribal court judge for 14 years, said state courts can learn from tribal courts, which stress humanizing children and families. For example, they use song-filled ceremonies to bless children and families.

Judge Fineday said some state courts -- California, New Mexico, Washington, Colorado and Minnesota --have specialized Indian Child Welfare Act dockets that focus on cases involving Native American children, but state courts overall need to do a better job understanding and helping Native American children.

“We need to send these children home,” she said.

#2: Delivering High-Quality Legal Representation

Studies show that child welfare cases in which parents have lawyers are less likely to have children removed from the home, but if they are, they spend fewer days in foster care, and that saves millions of dollars. 

But far too few families have lawyers, said Vivek Sankaran, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. He said eight states don’t have an absolute right to counsel for parents. Only 12 percent of parents in Wyoming, for example, had lawyers at shelter hearings. Virginia has a statutory cap of only $120 per case to pay parents’ lawyers. Seventeen states do not provide lawyers for children in child welfare cases.

“I hope we can agree that we’re in a crisis,” Sankaran said, “and we’ve tolerated this crisis to the extent that it has become the norm. Why should we care? Because this is a justice issue.”

David Kelly, special assistant at the Children’s Bureau, agreed with Sankaran, and added that “we’re in a good position to do something about it.” Kelly described a recent change in federal policy that for the first time provides money for attorneys for children, parents and tribes in child welfare cases.

#3: Unnecessary Placement of Children into Foster Care

This theme came up repeatedly during the summit.

Christopher Church, a staff attorney for the University of South Carolina School of Law’s CHAMPS Clinic, said the disparities he sees makes him question why certain children are removed from their families. For example, he said 93 percent of children are removed from their homes on weekdays, when child welfare staffers are working. Only 7 percent occur on weekends, when parents and children spend the most time together. “That has nothing to do with child safety,” he said.

He also noted that about 10 percent of children who are removed from their homes return in a few weeks or less, making him question whether they needed to be removed in the first place.

And then there are huge disparities between states. In West Virginia, nearly 11 children are removed from their homes for every 10,000 people. In Virginia, it’s one for every 10,000 people.

Ret. Judge Leonard Edwards of Santa Clara County, Calif., said judges must try harder to place children in crisis with relatives. He – and others at the summit -- recommended using Family Finding to do that. The national average for placement with relatives is 32 percent. Judge Edwards said it should be closer to 75 percent, as it is in some places that use Family Finding.

He also urged judges to hold the system accountable and not depend as much on social workers’ reports when judges make their rulings. Judges need to know what resources are available to them, and they should not be afraid to ask questions. They should lead not only in their courtrooms but in their communities.

#4: Courts Ensuring Fairness, Equity and Access to Justice for All

During the summit, a couple of speakers noted that Native American children in Minnesota are 25 times more likely than white children to be removed from their homes. That statistic is proof, they said, that the child welfare system doesn’t always ensure justice for all.

“You know how we can tell that the system is bad?” said Ret. Utah Judge William Thorne, who cited the statistic. “Rich people are not trying to get into the system.”

New York can point to many success stories to reduce the gap between minority and white children who enter the child welfare system. Edwina Mendelson, deputy chief administrative judge in the Office for Justice Initiatives in New York, offered this advice to her peers in other states: Talk to the experts. Use data to help guide decisions. Erase “silo thinking” so that child welfare agencies and courts work together.

Kevonne Small, attorney advisor in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said summit attendees should think of themselves as “civil rights warriors.” Know civil rights laws, she said, and hold people accountable so the laws are not broken.

#5: Leading Child Welfare Reform from the Supreme Court and AOC

After the first child welfare summit in 2005, Max Baer, Pennsylvania Supreme Court associate justice, said Pennsylvania got organized and began doing a better job of collaborating. Each county created a children’s roundtable to talk about how to more effectively help children in crisis, and each roundtable occasionally meets to share ideas.

“If you don’t collaborate,” Baer said, “you’ll fail.”

The state also created the Office of Children and Families, and Pennsylvania has reduced the number of children in foster care from about 22,000 to about 15,000, an annual savings of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. That savings, he said, gets the attention of lawmakers.

Washington State Court Administrator Dawn Marie Rubio agreed that the value of good relationships cannot be overstated.

The Closing

Chief Justice Cady urged attendees to not forget what they heard at the summit:

“I hope you remember the child Jerry Milner told us about who had 88 foster care placements in 12 years. Every month and a half that child had to pack up all of her belongings and make new friends.

“I hope you remember what Judge Trent Favre of Hancock County, Miss., said. He told us to empathize with the people who come into your courts and love them, and tell them you care about them and want to help them.

 “I hope you remember what David Kelly of the Children’s Bureau and others told us. He said we are in a crisis, but that shouldn’t paralyze us. We can -- and we should -- do something to change the system. And he told us that reform on the level that was necessary would make some uncomfortable. But that was OK – this is social justice work, and we shouldn’t let a little discomfort discourage us.  

“And finally, I hope you remember Shrounda Selivanoff of Washington state who urged us to ‘Value every person. There are no throw-away people.’”

“If we take this to heart, we will return to our states, territories and tribes with our action plans, and we will implement them. We will help strengthen children and their families and their communities, and we will return to the next child welfare summit with many success stories to tell.”