Hearings: How to Responsibly Open the Child Welfare Courtroom

Part one of this series discussed the historical nature of confidentiality, followed by a discussion of the societal forces that have changed including technologic advances, public and private communication such as social networking, increasing pressure on openness and transparency in government, and the growing need for support for resources including funding, staffing and leadership.

Judge James Payne, former presiding judge of the Marion County dependency court and former head of the Indiana Department of Child Services.

In part two, the focus shifts to the extremely critical dynamics that justify, even demand, transparency in government and the courts: the issues of trust and credibility. The work done by child protection agencies and the juvenile and family courts is, for the most part, extraordinary and by most measures successful. Of course, in an ideal world, the work would be 100 percent successful in ensuring health, safety and permanency for all children who have been the victims of abuse and neglect – human nature and the “science” of the service delivery system have yet to achieve that perfection.

When tragedies happen to children who have been involved with the child protection system and the courts, there are most often multiple contacts with the child and family. In addition to court proceedings, these include: resource referrals, evaluations, in-person contacts and communications with child protection workers, and participation in selected services.

In two instances, juvenile and family court judges overseeing abuse and neglect cases opened their courtrooms to the media, including allowing cameras to document the proceedings. As a judge in one of those instances – serving in the Marion Superior Court Juvenile Division in Indiana – several factors weighed heavily in our decision to open the courtroom to the media, including cameras:

  1. Over a period of years, multiple print, radio and TV reporters were rotated on assignment to cover children’s issues. Learning the process and understanding the system are an absolute necessity for good reporting, regardless of the medium.
  2. Changing circumstances became important factors in understanding abuse and neglect – family dynamics, crack cocaine and methamphetamine and opioids are just a few examples that significantly impacted the cause of and response to abuse and neglect.
  3. The challenges of funding at the local/state level will always affect operations and services, and the child protection system will always compete with other systems for adequate funding – education, mental health, transportation, corrections, etc.
  4. Data alone are not sufficient to compete with systems that not only have significant data bases but also their processes are open and transparent at least in principle if not practice.
  5. The child protection system competes with other systems for sufficient staffing – both by numbers and experience – and has repeatedly lost to other first responder systems such as law enforcement, fire departments and emergency medical vehicles such as EMTs.
  6. The lack of understanding of the complexity of the system as well as the nature of the relationship between courts, agencies, caseworkers, service providers and other professionals involved in the court system, high caseloads and high caseworker turnover undermine the work performed. Ultimately undermining the credibility of the information provided through the caseworkers and the child protection system – and the courts.

For those reasons, breaking the historical cycle of confidentiality in the courtrooms was the next logical and important step. The juvenile and family court is at the epicenter; it is where all of the efforts and processes of the child protection system and the service delivery system ultimately converge.

Whether sitting on the bench or sitting in the courtroom, observing these proceedings can allow for significant understanding and appreciation for the complexity and importance of the work done by all of the participants across the child protection system, from attorneys and court appointed special advocates to parents and extended families.

I suggest opening up the nation’s juvenile and family courts to the media and visitors, but require court approval for any inclusion of still or video cameras. I would also limit that openness to individuals over the age of 21 to avoid these important and emotional issues from being the subject of a “field trip” by young groups.

Only in the courts can the combined efforts of multiple systems and individuals be viewed and understood in the context of health, safety and permanency for children. To shine a light on the message and successes of the system, and better examine the few tragedies that occur, requires more transparency in the courts where these efforts come together in context.

Such understanding is necessary to ensure the public’s belief and trust in the child protection system’s credibility, which cannot be accomplished under the continued veil of confidentiality (which all too often means, or is interpreted as, secrecy). Transparency and openness in the courtroom are the only vehicles left and must be utilized for greater understanding and support of the child abuse and neglect systems.

A recent federal rule change could mean hundreds of millions of new funds for top-flight legal advocacy, and portends a new era of family justice in child welfare. Intense media coverage of this issue will drive increased funding for quality legal representation at the county, state and federal level.

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