Greater parent participation, efficiencies seen in virtual child welfare hearings
Virtual hearings for child welfare cases offer plenty of benefits, and they have a future after the coronavirus pandemic ends. But they also present limitations, according to interviews with presiding judges.
This summer, NCSC issued a “Study of Virtual Child Welfare Hearings Impressions from Judicial Interviews” to offer insight into the effectiveness of virtual hearings and perceptions of how families, lawyers and case workers adapted to them. The interviews were part of a larger study, funded by Annie E. Casey and Casey Family Programs, due to be released later this year. The judges who participated range in experience from one to 29 years on the bench and work in big cities, rural counties or in between.
The interviews led to these conclusions:
Parents participate more frequently. Judges attributed this to parents not having to travel, find parking, take time off from work and enter the often-intimidating atmosphere of a courtroom.
“I was surprised by the increased level of participation by both parents and children,” said Associate Judge Thomas Stuckey, who works in Centex Child Protection Court in Seguin, Texas. “Parents were able to appear in court without missing work or having anxiety about coming to the courthouse.”
Most judges prefer using video but don’t require it. Lawyers and court professionals almost always appeared on camera, but parents did not. This calls into question whether judges should require all participants to be on camera.
Virtual hearings facilitate time-specific scheduling in some courts. Time-specific scheduling is a long-standing recommendation for child welfare cases rather than assigning multiple cases for a morning time slot or an afternoon time slot.
Judges differ on whether virtual hearings make their jobs easier. Some said the hearings allow them to see witnesses’ faces up close on camera and make it easier to observe how participants react to testimony. Others pointed out that the hearings make it more difficult to assess witness credibility, recognize witness coaching, and make personal connections with parents and children.
Virtual hearings seem to be more time efficient. They reduced travel time and time spent in courthouses for attorneys, case workers and others. They allowed attorneys to appear in courts in multiple jurisdictions on the same day, and many judges found that attorneys were as well or better prepared for virtual hearings than for in-person hearings.
The hearings allow more “support people” to attend. Besides parents, several judges said foster parents, therapists and relatives appeared more frequently because virtual hearings are more convenient to attend.
Most judges say virtual hearings are the new normal. Some judges lament the loss of decorum in virtual hearings and say that environment sometimes dampens the gravity of the situation, but most see a future for these hearings at least some of the time.
Judge Stuckey said, “I believe we’ll see the development and implementation of a hybrid model, allowing court participants the option to appear remotely when we return to in-person hearings.”
Tiny Chats achieves viewership milestone
Congratulations to Tiny Chats for reaching a significant milestone: 50,000 views. An NCSC project that was born from the pandemic in 2020 has blossomed into a go-to source for information on access-to-justice topics and court operations.
Tiny Chats creators and court management consultants Danielle Hirsch and Zach Zarnow have attracted a growing audience with videos that provide courts with eviction diversion resources along with information on other topics ranging from Zoom tips to fair housing and procedural fairness. The duo uses art, music and costumes to explain and bring awareness to key court concepts and procedures and other related topics.
"It has been really fun to make Tiny Chats. We never imagined that part of our jobs would be dressing up in silly costumes and writing songs and poems and fake magazine quizzes, but it has been enormously rewarding,” Hirsch said. “We hear back from judges and court administrators and staff who use what they learn from Tiny Chats in their work, and we also know that a number of college and law school professors have used them in their classes, as have several court systems, that include Tiny Chats in their internal training materials and onboarding." Read the entire announcement.