Monday, March 17, 2008
‘Overstressed’ Dependency Courts Need Help, Commission Says
By Sherri M. Okamoto, Staff Writer
California’s dependency court system is in crisis, forced to get by with too few judicial officers, too few lawyers, and a lack of other resources needed to achieve its goal of reunifying families where possible and finding permanent placements otherwise, a state commission has preliminarily concluded.
The “system is overstressed and underresourced,” the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care said. The commission, appointed by Chief Justice Ronald M. George, Friday submitted its draft recommendations for public comment, which is due by May 13.
“Far too many of our state’s children find themselves in a ‘foster care limbo,’ shuffled from place to place, separated from their siblings, friends and schools. Supreme Court Justice Carlos R. Moreno, chair of commission, said in a release accompanying the draft. “This is not the future we want for the most vulnerable among us.”
There are nearly 80,000 children in foster care in California, which is more than any other state in the country, the commission reported. Half of them have been in foster care for more than two years, and 17 percent have been in foster care in excess of three years.
Among these children in foster care, waiting to see if the court will return them to their homes or order them adopted into a new home, African-Americans and Native Americans are represented in disproportionate amounts, the commission said.
Goal Not Met
Although the court’s goal is reuniting a child with his family or permanent adoption into another home, as many as 5,000 children in California turn 18 each year without having ever left the foster care system, Moreno noted.
The justice wrote:
“The courts play an important statutory role in foster care, overseeing critical decisions on the removal of children from their homes, services they and their families will receive, and where and with whom children will live.”
Many families and children wait hours before the mandatory hearing which will determine the child’s placement, but sometimes do not meet their attorneys until moments before their hearing, the commission said. The median time for a dependency court hearing is 10 to 15 minutes. If the court manages to give the case a thorough review, it may then fail to meet the statutory timeline for moving the case forward.
The state has fewer than 150 full-time and part-time judicial officials hearing dependency cases, the commission reported. The full-time officials carry an average caseload of 1,000 cases. As a result, the for a dependency hearing is ten to fifteen minutes, far less than the state’s recommended standard of 30–60 minutes.
Caseloads Exceed Standard
Although the state’s recommended standard for an attorney case load is 188, attorneys who practice in dependency court have an average of 273 clients per attorney, and in some counties, the caseload rises to over 600 per attorney.
“The commission has kept the focus on children,” Moreno said, “We drafted a set of comprehensive and strategic recommendations that we believe will improve the judicial system and how we work with our partners.”
The commission recommended:
•That the Judicial Council, Department of Social Services, local courts and child welfare agencies implement improvements to ensure “immediate, continuous and appropriate services and timely, thorough review for all families in the system,” and that the families receive the services necessary to keep children with their families whenever possible.
•That the Judicial Council and trial courts make children in foster care and their families a priority when allocating resources and administrative support.
•That the courts, child welfare and parenting agencies work together to prioritize the needs of children and families in the dependency court system and promote effective teamwork among the entities.
•That the Judicial Council, Congress, Legislature, courts and partnering agencies make children in foster care and their families a priority when allocating public and private funding.
George appointed the statewide panel in March 2006 and charged it with drafting “politically viable and fiscally responsible proposals to achieve outcomes related to safety, permanency, well-being and fairness for children and families.”
This commission is believed to be the first statewide body to focus on the courts’ role in child welfare.
Its members consist of judges, attorneys, legislators, child welfare directors, foster youth and child advocates, community leaders, academics, tribal leaders and philanthropists.
They include Court of Appeal Justices Kathryn Doi Todd of this district’s Div. Two and Richard Huffman of the Fourth District’s Div. One; Los Angeles Superior Court Judges Michael Nash and Terry Friedman; county Supervisor Michael Antonovich; retired Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Leonard Edwards, now a consultant to the Judicial Council on juvenile justice issues; Assembly Speaker-designate Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles; and Senate President Pro Tem-designate Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
The commission draft can be found at www.courinfo.ca.gov/blueribbon. Comments may be submitted online or by fax or mail.
The commission is scheduled to take the public’s feedback and present its final recommendations to the Judicial Council in August.
The commission’s final report is to include an implementation plan with specific milestones for measuring progress. The commission is to remain in existence until June 2009 so that it can participate in the implementation of its proposed reforms.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company