Hearings: A Rural Judge Talks About Small Town Child Welfare Courts

The Converse County Courthouse in Douglas, Wyoming. Photo: Flickr.

In the least populated state with many expansive miles between communities, Wyoming faces some unique challenges when it comes to meeting the needs of its kids in foster care. In a state that spans almost 100,000 square miles, there were just 1,247 youth in foster care in the entire state in 2018.

When we launched our “Hearings” series a few months ago, our reporters were tasked with attending juvenile court proceedings across the country – New York City, Los Angeles, Detroit – where those proceedings are open for the media, and in some cases the public to attend.

For me, living in rural Wyoming, the delinquency and dependency courts are presumably closed, and only open for cases of youth charged as adults, according to a report from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

While I have not been granted access to the courtroom itself, I did have the opportunity sit down with my local juvenile court judge, F. Scott Peasley to learn more about his courtroom and oversight of child welfare cases in rural America.

Judge Peasley is the district court judge for the Eighth Judicial District, where the largest city – Douglas – has a population of roughly 6,000. Appointed in 2017 by former Gov. Matt Mead (R), Peasley grew up and practiced law in the community over which he now presides. He presides over an array of felony criminal, large civil cases and juvenile and probate matters. In fiscal year 2018, he participated in about 120 juvenile court proceedings, making up about one-sixth of his number of filings.

The economic drivers in the community are energy-based with coal, oil, natural gas, uranium and wind – which is currently experiencing a big uptick in oil and natural gas development. With more people in the community and surrounding areas, there’s a housing crunch underway and emergency services are seeing a stark increase in calls.

District and circuit courts in the neighboring counties of Campbell and Natrona are feeling the pinch, announcing earlier this month that there was a crisis in public defender availability. We sat down with Peasley to see how the boom may be stretching resources and impacting overall child welfare numbers and outcomes.

Converse County has just under 14,000 people, according to recent census projections. Do you see parents whose cases you rule on in public all the time?

I probably see them a lot more than I know. I just don’t recognize them. That’s something I knew going in. I grew up here and I practiced law here and now I’m a judge here. But it’s rare I see people in the community that I see as a juvenile court judge.

What’s unique about being in a rural child welfare court?

Representation. We’re in a bit of a boom cycle [in our local industry] and so our [overall court case] numbers are slowly trickling upward. The public defender’s office is extremely busy and so one of the real challenges in a rural community is making sure that those that qualify have representation and those that need it.

The docket in juvenile court has fairly quick timetables, so we have to manage our docket very carefully in terms of making sure that we meet those deadlines, so that’s a challenge. I don’t know if that’s specifically a rural challenge, but it’s a challenge nonetheless.

In the state of Wyoming do both the biological parents and the child receive representation?

It depends. In an abuse/neglect case, and this was a relatively recent decision in terms of interpreting the statute for representation in these types of cases. For example, let’s say mom is alleged to have abused her child and there is potential out-of-home placement, then, in that case, mom obviously gets representation, but dad does as well, even if he’s not alleged to have abused or neglect the child. And the child is entitled to a guardian ad litem, which we appoint in every abuse/neglect case.

In a delinquency action, the child is afforded the right to representation because the charges are directed at the juvenile.

In CHINS petitions (Child in Need of Supervision), then the child is entitled to representation, as would the parents.

Do you think the representation of parents and children in your court is of good quality? Are the attorneys handling those cases well-trained on the issues and have manageable caseloads?

I think they get very good representation. The local attorneys here and in Casper who work these cases do a fantastic job.

From the time a child is removed from their home by DFS (Department of Family Services) how soon are those families back in your courtroom?

Statutorily, if the department takes a child out of the home, then we have to have what’s called a Shelter Care Hearing. Those have to be conducted really quick, within a matter of days. That’s the initial hearing that we would see them on. The exclusive purpose of the hearing is to determine whether or not the children need to be out of the home pending further proceedings. Those further proceedings include having an initial appearance, which is done within 10 days of the Shelter Care Hearing … so relatively quickly.

The state’s policy is to close child welfare proceedings to the media and in turn the public. What are your thoughts on those closed versus open juvenile proceedings?

I don’t really have an opinion on that. I just follow the law. Right now they are confidential.

What are the family situations that most frequently lead to court involvement here?

Certainly drugs are a big component, probably the predominant component of what we see.

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is being challenged by several states in court right now. How often does that law come up in your court?

We’ve had a number of proceedings where ICWA applied. I would say it’s fairly rare but we’ve had the tribes involved in a number of cases.

Do those present certain steps you need to take in addition to what normally happens?

Absolutely. ICWA has a lot of provisions in it. In fact, one of the things I’m required to determine at the outset of a case is whether or not there’s reason to believe a juvenile involved in the case has Native American ancestry. We have to make those determinations relatively quickly.

If ICWA does apply, we have to make sure we give the tribe notice. And under federal statutes that pertain to ICWA, we have to see that they’re certain things happen, particularly if the child’s out of the home. In order for that to happen, in certain circumstances, then there has to be an expert that testifies relative to whether or not we’re making reasonable efforts to get them back to their tribe and the notice provisions are quite stringent in making sure the tribe is afforded an opportunity to participate.

There’s a recent Wyoming Supreme Court decision relative to what that expert has to testify to. They don’t necessarily have to be familiarized with tribal customs, but there are other qualifications they do have to meet. But it’s a little bit different than what we would have with a non-tribal juvenile.

Federal government passed the Family First Prevention Services Act to help prevent the use of foster care in some cases. If you want to work with a family without removing their child into foster care, what are the best resources available to you in this county?

That’s a great question. I’ve read through the Act a little, and I know there was proposed legislation being looked at by the judiciary committee. I looked at some of the proposed changes … when and if that law goes into effect in Wyoming, I’ll take a closer look at that.

In terms of the resources here just in Converse County, I guess I’m a little concerned. I don’t know what resources we have. It’s always a challenge to find foster families. There are times the department utilizes the group home, but as I read the Family First Act, as I understand, it’s going to have to be a qualified treatment facility. Some other components of that are really going to be a challenge I think, particularly in rural communities, to meet those requirements.

I think the overall goal of avoiding out-of-home placement is always what we’re looking for and what we want, our laws right now are designed to make sure. Me as a juvenile court judge, my primary goal is to make sure that the department is making reasonable efforts to avoid out-of-home placement. As I understand this new law, that’s going to be pushed even more to keep the kids from leaving the home.

I think if they’re changing the law to require other sorts of placements for these kids, at least on a temporary basis, it’s going to be a real challenge. In all rural communities in Wyoming, it’s going to be a real challenge. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a challenge now, it’s certainly a challenge now.

How do you stay current on what’s changing or what’s new in state child welfare policy or federal child welfare policy?

I stay updated on the law and recent Supreme Court decisions, both federally and statewide.

This story is a part of a Chronicle series called “Hearings,” where our reporters and guest contributors provide an inside look at how child welfare courts function.

In about half the states in the country, child welfare proceedings are closed to the public and media – despite the fact that they are places where children enter foster care; where families are ripped apart, sometimes put back together and otherwise – through adoption – made anew.

If you are a judge, parent, foster youth, attorney or an advocate for families … we want to hear from you. Share a story from a recent dependency court experience that you believe speaks to a problem or a success story.

Anonymity may be granted depending on the nature of your contribution. Our intent with this – and all Chronicle projects – is to ethically cover the child welfare system, which often means protecting the names and identities of children and families caught up in it.

To contribute to “Hearings,” complete this form (or e-mail info@chronicleofsocialchange.org). Please be sure to include your name, location and role in a child welfare case.

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Kim Phagan-Hansel, Managing Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Kim Phagan-Hansel, Managing Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 116 Articles
Kim is Managing Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change and Editor of Fostering Families Today magazine. Reach her at editor@adoptinfo.net.