Are virtual hearings effective in child welfare courts?


child welfare

Are virtual hearings effective in child welfare courts?

As court leaders rushed to resume operations during the early months of the pandemic, virtual hearings became the norm, but how are they working in child welfare courts?

Several months after those hearings began, there isn’t a definitive answer, so NCSC is working to find one through a study that includes 16 courts in five states: Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska, Texas and Washington.

Although some families don’t have access to the technology, court leaders suspect that it has increased appearance rates by making it more convenient for many children and parents to attend hearings. But others worry that virtual hearings diminish personal connections between all involved and minimize the severity of the problems that bring families to courts in the first place.

NCSC’s work involves observing virtual hearings, interviewing judges and older youth, and reviewing surveys of parents, attorneys and caseworkers, with the goal of answering these specific questions: Do children and parents feel heard in these hearings? Do they feel safe? Do lawyers and social workers think the hearings are effective? For those who have experienced both, do they prefer virtual hearings or in-person hearings? What can judges and other court leaders do to make virtual hearings more effective?

“Families involved in our child welfare courts are some of our most vulnerable,” said Teri Deal, an NCSC principal court management consultant who is leading the project. “Many of the parents and children are living with traumatic life experiences and limited resources, and these conditions have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“While there are many anecdotal benefits of virtual child welfare hearings, …we know very little about what the experience of the families has been in virtual hearings,” Deal said. “We need to identify courtroom practices that help support families to access trauma-responsive, high-quality hearings because we know that when parents and children are engaged in hearings and receive high-quality representation, there are more positive outcomes for youth and families. We don't yet know how those practices translate best to the virtual environment, and this study is designed to begin to tease that out.”

Deal said NCSC, which assigned six staffers to this project, will soon begin releasing reports that will identify challenges and include guidance that will be shared with child welfare courts nationwide. There are plans to conduct additional research that will build on the findings and conclusions of this study, which was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs.

Sandra Day O’Connor Award for Civics Education

Nominations are now being accepted for NCSC’s Sandra Day O’Connor Award for the Advancement of Civics Education. This award honors an organization, court or individual who have promoted, inspired, improved, or led an innovation or accomplishment in the field of civics education relating to the justice system. Candidates can be nominated by members of the Conference of Chief Justices, the Conference of State Court Administrators, and members of the NCSC Board. Deadline for submissions: March 26. For more information, go here.

Please send submissions by:

  • Email to:
    Lorri Montgomery, Director of Communications


  • Mail to:
    National Center for State Courts
    Attn: Lorri Montgomery
    300 Newport Ave.
    Williamsburg, VA 23185