The question now, advocates and those involved in the Family Court system say, is not whether it is a good idea to encourage children to participate in their hearings – particularly when the hearings focus on the child’s long-term, permanent living situation – but how to make it happen more often.
The Family Court system in New York City, with one court building for each borough, addresses cases of abuse and neglect, adoption, custody and visitation, juvenile delinquency and other matters involving children and families.
“Several years ago we were talking about whether or not children and youth should even be there,” said Stephanie Gendell, Associate Executive Director of the Citizens Committee for Children. “But we’ve made a lot of progress since then. I think now people are focusing more on trying to figure out how do we manage all of this.”
The Citizens Committee recently hosted a panel discussion of child advocates, attorneys, judges, youth and foster care agencies that focused on how to improve youth participation in the court process.
The movement to encourage more children and youth participation in Family Court began to pick up steam several years ago. While children would attend hearings from time to time, advocates say it was a challenging feat to pull off and there was no clear mandate to include children in hearings.
A widely hailed 2003 Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care study included among its recommendations a push to strengthen the voices of children in the court process, which advocates say helped galvanize the forces in and around Family Court. And some advocates in New York point to a February 2004 memo from Administrative Judge Joseph Lauria, who oversees the Family Court for the state of New York, encouraging all Family Court judges, judicial hearing officers and referees to “expand the effort to have age appropriate children, perhaps 10 years and older, present in court.” The memo also suggests a minimum of one appearance in court every 12 months.
Over the next several years a smattering of studies, reports and forums sounded similar notes, emphasizing the need to hear the voices of children and youth in courtrooms where their fates were being decided. In June of last year, advocates began hearing from children themselves through the citywide Youth Justice Board, a panel of foster children and former foster children under the aegis of the public-private Center for Court Innovation. The board issued a 64-page report focusing on the need for more youth participation in the court process and has continued advocating for more youth involvement through presentations to judges, lawyers, agencies and other forums. (See City Limits Weekly #593, June 25, 2007, Foster Teens Grab Reins of Plans For Their Lives.)
One of the findings of the YJB report was that youth feel like their voice is missing from their cases. "Youth want their needs and opinions to be heard, but they don’t always understand how to make that happen. ... The perception from the youth’s point of view is that many adults are talking about them, but not many are talking to them." According to the report, some young people have been involved in court proceedings and had a positive experience. One such person was quoted as saying, "They [the people in the courtroom] see your face, they have more understanding. They felt the emotion. I think it goes quicker when they see your face."
Another youth said, "I spoke to the judge. I felt like it was all about me—it felt good."
Lauria, who spent 10 years as a Family Court judge, said the efforts over the past several years have begun to be manifest through increased appearances of children and youth participating in their own permanency hearings. He said until June of last year, the courts did not track appearances by children and youth, but began doing so in an effort to measure progress.
“It’s something we’re going to continue to work on,” Lauria said. “I do see it happening more. It’s just a question of building on that increase, and sustaining it.”
Judges, children’s attorneys, and other advocates for children in the foster care system want to tread carefully to make sure children are not haphazardly subjected to courthouse trips that could waste precious classroom time, at best – and add damaging and difficult experiences to their already painful experiences, at worst.
Improving the experience of young people who find themselves involved in these legal proceedings is just one of several major challenges facing Family Court these days. The court, the city, judges and lawyers can all testify to a serious backlog in cases and not enough resources to handle the number of cases coming through the court. (The winter issue of Child Welfare Watch, which is co-published by City Limits' sister think tank, the Center for an Urban Future, analyzed such challenges in detail.)
But those working with foster children say there are ways to surmount the challenges ahead as New York City’s family courts become more child-friendly. They speak of the value of preparing children for the courtroom experience through age-appropriate methods and also of debriefing children afterward.
One method of encouraging youth and children to participate in court has been to acclimate them to the court system through an annual “Teen Day,” Gendell said, when the calendar is cleared for youth participation all day and teenagers get taken to lunch and meet with judges, judge surrogates called "referees," and law guardians, who are the lawyers appointed to represent children.
The movement has been taken up as one of the priorities of the Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children, chaired by Chief Judge Judith Kaye, which includes judges, lawyers, advocates, physicians and state and local officials. The commission was formed in 1988 to address the problems of children whose lives are shaped by New York State’s courts.