Juvenile Judges Find Benchcards Helpful in Reuniting Families

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Note: This is the second part of a recap of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges annual conference, written for Youth Today by former judge Irene Sullivan. Click here for the first part of her recap, which covers a session on the treatment of gay youth in the juvenile justice system.

Politicians use teleprompters, pilots use checklists, so shouldn’t juvenile judges use a benchcard to make sure they ask all the right questions at preliminary protective hearings regarding removing children from their homes?

Yes, according to a study released by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) and discussed last month at a roundtable conducted by leading child welfare judges during the NCJFCJ’s annual meeting in New York City. In fact, the judges were so impressed with the results that they wanted to move rapidly into national training on the benchcard and to utilize it to track—and hopefully reduce-- the overrepresentation of children of color in the foster care system.

Researchers tracked the cases of 500 children whose cases came before 20 judges; ten of those used the benchcard, and ten did not. The courts where the research occurred were in Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and Omaha, Neb.

Researchers found that 45 percent more children were able to return home to their parents or live with extended family members when judges used the benchcard during the first hearing after children are removed from their home for alleged abuse or neglect.

The benchcard is a four-page visual aid that suggests to the judge a number of specific questions to ask in each of these categories:

  • Persons who should be present at the preliminary protective hearing
  • Bringing those parties and key witnesses into the hearing
  • Reviewing the Petition
  • Making the Indian Child Welfare Act Determination
  • Engaging the parents
  • Due process considerations
  • Legal threshold for removal
  • Reasonable efforts to prevent removal
  • What is preventing the child from returning home today
  • Appropriateness of placement
  • Reasonable efforts to allow the child to safely return home, and
  • Closing questions to ask parents, children and family members

“Parents were more engaged, child welfare workers were prepared with better and more complete information about the family’s conditions and circumstances,” said Judge Nan Waller, Presiding Judge in Portland, Oregon, one of the study sites. “We were able to drill down to specific barriers that prevented the child from remaining at home and to meaningfully engage parents in fashioning solutions to keeping families together safely.”

“The benchcard can transform judicial practice,” said Judge Michael Nash, presiding judge for the Los Angeles Juvenile Court, one of the study sites. “The results clearly show that there is a much richer discussion of relevant issues at hearings than without the benchcard. It’s a realistic goal to limit the use of long term foster care, particularly for African-American children.” 

Judge Patricia Martin, chief judge of the dependency court division in Chicago and the newly-installed NCJFCJ president, agrees that the benchcard has the potential to address racial disparities in judicial decision-making.

“Really, what we’re trying to do with the number of questions is attack implicit bias,” Martin said. “For example, in Chicago, some judges can tell by an address what race a child is. If they make decisions based on quick bias, it results in too many removals.”

A tendency towards prejudice is not easy to broach with judges, which is why the council is offering video trainings on use of the benchcard to any circuit that requests it.

“The judges in Cook County are my friends, we’ve known each other for years, and yet many were not willing to open up and talk about race,” she said. “It’s still a volatile issue. You can’t just do the training among ‘friends,’ it has to get really tough.”

Click here to download NCJFCJ’s new technical assistance bulletin on the benchcard. Click here to download the benchcards.

Irene Sullivan is the author of Raised by the Courts: One Judge’s Insight into Juvenile Justice. To read an excerpt from the book, click here.