Academic journal article Justice System Journal

From the Benches and Trenches Evaluating the Court Process for Alaska's Children in Need of Aid

Academic journal article Justice System Journal

From the Benches and Trenches Evaluating the Court Process for Alaska's Children in Need of Aid

Article excerpt

The study described in this article was undertaken by the Alaska Court System's Child in Need of Aid Court Improvement Committee in 2005. The study described the Alaska Court System's handling of child protection cases, compared that situation to findings from two earlier assessments, and discussed the court's performance in the context of applicable state and federal case-processing standards, including timeliness, efficiency, fairness, treatment of parties, and quality of proceedings. The analysis suggested that the Alaska Court System is doing well on several performance measures, including fairness, respectful treatment of parties, and quality of proceedings, but that room for improvement exists on others, particularly timeliness and efficiency. These general findings were complicated by significant variations on several measures among court locations and on some measures by survey results suggesting that practitioners and judges may not be dissatisfied with the system's current level of performance.

Child protection cases, or child-in-need-of-aid cases (CINA), are among the most difficult litigation that the state courts handle. Some of the difficulties are inherent to the subject matter itself. For example, the emotional context of removing a child from his or her parents is a central part of these cases. Many of the parents who go through the child protection system also suffer from chronic and ongoing problems such as substance abuse and mental illness. Many of the children suffer from mental and physical injuries.

Aside from those difficulties, many challenges presented by CINA cases involve case management. CINA cases are complex, multiparty civil litigation, which include bureaucracies, such as child welfare agencies. Yet they differ from other multiparty civil litigation because they are processed on a comparatively accelerated timeline. Judges must comply with a variety of laws that mandate timelines and deadlines for certain case events, and they must make specific findings at certain hearings. Finally, these cases require judges to make a series of interrelated decisions over time about the care and custody of a neglected or abused child in the context of changing parental behavior and, often, severe family dysfunction.

Underscoring the reality of these challenges, a comprehensive assessment of the Alaska Court System's handling of child protection cases published in 1996 and a subsequent follow-up study in 2002 found some weaknesses with respect to a number of aspects of CINA cases, including notice, delay, quality of hearings, timeliness of case resolution, adjudication rates, and treatment of cases involving Native children. The study described in this article was undertaken by the Alaska Court System's CINA Court Improvement Committee in 2005 as a follow-up to the earlier studies. The purposes were to document the current situation, to compare the current situation to state and national standards for case processing, and where possible to note any changes from the earlier studies. This article reports the results of the study, beginning with the legal and social contexts governing the handling of child protection cases in Alaska and including the court system's performance with regard to timeliness, efficiency, fairness, treatment of parties, and quality of proceedings.

Geographical, Demographic, and Governmental Context for Alaska. Alaska's child protection system cannot be understood without reference to the unique geography, demographics, and service-delivery structure of the state. Alaska is the third most sparsely populated state in the country. Residents are distributed unevenly between urban and rural places, with about 70 percent living in places of 2,500 people or more and the rest living in small, clustered settlements and Alaska Native villages, many of which lack road access (Alaska Department of Labor, 2000). Alaskan children suffer from high per capita levels of child maltreatment compared to children in other parts of the United States. …

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