Juvenile Courts:

Reforms Aim to Better Serve Maltreated Children

HEHS-99-13: Published: Jan 11, 1999. Publicly Released: Jan 11, 1999.

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Cynthia Maher Fagnoni
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed states' and local agencies' efforts to improve the timeliness of judicial decisions concerning the permanent placement of foster children, focusing on: (1) the key problems in the juvenile dependency court system; and (2) state and local responses to these problems.

GAO noted that: (1) serious systemic problems continue to plague the juvenile dependency court system; (2) states GAO visited reported a lack of cooperation between the courts and child welfare agencies as well as difficult personnel and data management issues that jeopardize the courts' ability to ensure that a child's stay in the foster care system is as brief as possible and that the permanent placement decided upon is in the best overall interest of the child; (3) despite their shared involvement in the child welfare system, courts and child welfare agencies often do not work well together; (4) for example, some judges mistrust the judgments of caseworkers and routinely order additional clinical assessments to compensate for what the judges perceive as professional inadequacies; (5) in addition, courts face numerous difficulties, including increased caseloads, short tenures for judges and attorneys assigned to juvenile dependency courts, insufficient training of judges and attorneys in child welfare law and concepts, and information systems that do not adequately track the progress of individual cases or monitor the courts' compliance with statutory timeframes for achieving permanent placements; (6) in response to these problems, some states have initiated court reforms that they believe reduce the length of time children spend in foster care and improve the quality of the decisions made by the courts; (7) these reforms generally fall into two categories: (a) reforms which are designed to improve the overall operation and infrastructure of the courts, including convening multidisciplinary advisory committees to resolve differences that exist between the courts and the organizations involved in court proceedings as well as developing juvenile dependency court information systems; and (b) reforms focused on improving the quality of decisionmaking on individual cases; (8) these reforms include holding mediation sessions in which all relevant parties meet to resolve issues in dispute in a non-adversarial setting outside the courtroom, as well as increasing the time allotted for specific hearings; (9) regardless of the nature of the reform, state and local officials at the sites GAO visited identified three ingredients that successful reform efforts have in common; and (10) these essential reform components are the presence of judicial leadership and collaboration among court participants, the availability of timely information on case processing performance, and the availability of financial resources to initiate and sustain reforms.

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