Child Welfare and Court Collaboration

By Tonbridge, Scott | Policy & Practice, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Child Welfare and Court Collaboration


Tonbridge, Scott, Policy & Practice


Judges and child welfare professionals are becoming more engaged to have open and honest discussions about challenges and needed change for systems to improve the lives of children and families. This relationship has evolved over time. Court and child welfare collaborations and targeted practices have been bringing these two entities together to strengthen the system and better serve vulnerable children and families.

Courts play significant roles in child welfare cases. Judges are charged with making decisions about a child's safety in removal hearings and ensuring they return home or find another permanent plan in a reasonable amount of time. In addition, they perform the traditional role of resolving disputes that arise between the child, the parents and child welfare agencies. Courts also have an ongoing supervisory role in these cases. They must ensure that children's health, education, parenting, visitation and other provisions are appropriately assessed and delivered. Child welfare agencies are charged with providing quality services and aiming to improve child well-being.

The more these two systems speak to each other, the more they can build better collaborations and learn from each other's strengths and weaknesses. Judges naturally come in contact with all stakeholders in a single case, having the vantage point of seeing issues from various perspectives. Specialized family court judges often hear delinquency, protection and private custody cases in contrast to most child welfare agencies, which are designed to serve children and families in a silo approach. Although they each have a different method for working with this population, they ultimately share the common goal of effectively meeting their needs.

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Courts and agencies have a compelling interest in ensuring youth and family involvement in individual cases. While it is a legal requirement for children and families to be involved in own their court case, it is especially important to understand how meaningful this is for families and the effect it has on their future outcomes. Most professionals can attest that youth and families, when it is appropriate, should be key stakeholders in their court hearings and case planning sessions as well as in system change discussions. Although judges and child welfare agencies generally have the lead voice in child protection cases, they realize the significance of bringing children and families to the decision-making table, and when it is in the child's best interest. They could also add valuable input in the way that child welfare agencies and courts could work together to improve child and family outcomes.

Examples of Child Welfare And Court Collaboration

Collaboration is a potent approach to changing the way that child welfare agencies and courts conduct business. These two entities working together are not only beneficial for improving the system, but could be potentially the best way to effectively address challenges in child protection cases.

The American Bar Association's Permanency Barriers Project is a collaborative model where attorneys, agencies and judges jointly address issues among children and families in their localities. This project establishes county advisory teams, which brings various child welfare professionals to the table to address issues. Judges lead the teams while attorneys facilitate group discussion. Subgroups are formed to address problems such as truancy, substance abuse or youth aging out of foster care. In this project, judges are known to bring other stakeholders to the table such as education representatives, private providers and community leaders. In many instances over the life of the project, multi-disciplinary workgroups and trainings have served to 'get everyone on the same page,' and move these issues forward. …

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