Main Page
This Issue
Next Article
Previous Article

2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 5, No. 3
August 2000

The North Carolina Court Improvement Project

What Some Courts Are Doing to Achieve Timely Permanance for Foster Children

Things sometimes happen in court that keep children in foster care longer than they need to be. Lawyers don't show. Parents appear, only to ask for a court-appointed attorney. The court is asked, after a child has been in foster care for 18 months, "What about the father?" Parents who have been absent or disinterested suddenly appear in the "eleventh hour," saying they want their children back. These things can result in continuances.

These kinds of delays help explain why, in 1992-93, the median length of stay in foster care in North Carolina was 18.4 months (544 days). Because of the way child welfare was practiced in departments of social services (DSS's) and processed by the courts, some kids were literally growing up in foster care.

A Climate of Reform

Since that time, many North Carolina DSS's have worked very hard to turn this situation around. Through their involvement in initiatives such as Families for Kids and Challenge for Children, DSS's have made significant changes in the way they do business, both internally and in their interactions with other parts of the child welfare system.

Judges, attorneys, and others in the court system also recognized what was happening to foster children. Concerned about the negative affect judicial procedures had on children—up to one-third of the waiting time for child welfare cases is spent on procedure—the federal government launched an initiative. Adopted in North Carolina as the Court Improvement Project (CIP), this initiative focused on tightening up administrative judicial procedures to reduce the length of foster care stays.

The North Carolina Court Improvement Project

The CIP was adopted by five of North Carolina's 39 district courts. District 20 (Anson, Richmond, Stanly and Union Counties) and District 25 (Burke, Caldwell Catawba), are currently involved in four-year (1997_2001) pilot projects called "Model Court Rules and Case Management." These projects have been implemented in order to determine the effectiveness of using model court judges and judge-supervised case managers as a way of increasing greater permanence for children and families.

Mini-grant projects on "Case Management, Court Rules and Training" are also currently being implemented in Districts 8 (Greene, Lenoir and Wayne Counties), 16B (Robeson County), and 19C (Rowan County). These district courts have received funding for two years to identify problems, system weaknesses, and other barriers to achieving permanence for children. Advisory committees and multidisciplinary training are incorporated into the projects. By the end of the project each jurisdiction is expected to:

  • Have judges assigned to cases so that any time a family appears in court their case is heard by the same judge (referred to as "one judge, one family")

  • Hold conferences the day after a petition is filed ("day one conferences") and having early substantive hearings

  • Conduct pre-adjudication and pre-hearing conferences

  • Conduct earlier diligent searches, giving orders to parents at time of hearing

  • Appoint a lawyer for parents when the petition is filed

The 20th Judicial District

Under the leadership of chief district court judge, Ronald W. Burris, the court that serves Anson, Richmond, Stanly, and Union Counties (20th Judicial District) has made many procedural changes as part of its involvement in the CIP.

One step Burris took to reduce the continuances that lead to longer foster care stays was to make juvenile court a court of priority in his district. Prior to this, if a lawyer representing a parent wished, she could tell the court she could not attend a court date and the case would be continued. Now that juvenile court is the court of priority, lawyers in the 20th judicial district who fail to show up to represent their clients could be charged with contempt of court (Hall, 2000).

To further reduce continuances, parents in the 20th judicial district no longer need to request a court-appointed attorney. "Since the majority are entitled to an attorney, we automatically assign them one the day the case is filed," explains Martha Sue Hall, an administrator for the CIP in the 20th judicial district (Hall, 2000). The number of continuances has also been reduced by specific administrative changes. For example, before anyone leaves the courtroom, the date of the next hearing is set, as are timeframes for summaries. All parties who must be present at the next hearing are served notice at this time; this takes the burden of delivering these notices off the sheriff's department.

In an effort to encourage collaboration and to ensure that all concerned parties get the information relevant to a case, Burris also made day one conferences mandatory. Occuring the day after a petition is filed and every time a nonsecure petition is filed, day one conferences bring a wide range of people to the table. In addition to the usual parties (attorneys, DSS, parents) these meetings are sometimes attended by representatives from the schools, GAL, public health, mental health, law enforcement, and many others.

Every conference occurs at the same time and place (e.g., 2 p.m. at the courthouse) and covers the same issues: placement (why the child was removed, where the child should be placed), visitation issues, services being provided to the family and child, paternity of the child, and whether someone is paying child support.

Martha Sue Hall personally testifies to the effectiveness of these changes. She notes that 18 months into the CIP the average time a child spent in foster care in the 20th judicial district was 583 days. One year later, the length of stay had been reduced to 263 days. "The secret," she says, "is no continuances" (Hall, 2000).

Elsewhere in North Carolina

Three years into the project, Lana Dial, state-level coordinator of the CIP, already sees positive changes. In the CIP districts, Dial sees more conversations between DSS and court staff, more pre-trial and review meetings, increased efficiency in the use of court time, and judges who are more involved in court proceedings than ever before.

Dial also notes that although the judicial system is still adversarial, there is a new team approach toward the goal of permanence for children. As a result, child welfare workers in the five CIP districts are more likely to discuss with judges their recommendations for children. "Now everyone feels accountable for the time children spend in foster care," Dial says.

Parents' attorneys have been the last to get on board with the improvement efforts, Dial admits, but this doesn't surprise her—traditionally they have not been trusted within the court process simply because they represent the parents. Increasingly, though, judges are trying to increase parent attorney compensation. Better compensation would serve both as a reward for difficult work and an incentive to attract higher quality lawyers for parents.

The CIP and Child and Family Outcomes

Although the evaluation results are not yet in, there are anecdotal reports of CIP initiatives that have helped children and families. Reduced continuations, more respect for children and families, and better decision-making processes are some of the reported changes. Better decision-making processes reflects a commitment to deal with tough cases today, preventing a cycle of court involvement known as the "revolving door."

Earlier access to services for children and families is another very important change. In the past, DSS has been forced to make petitions simply to get access to resources (i.e., mental health services). Judicial resources are being saved because agencies are now giving services to children and families up front, without the pressure from the courts. Judges are also becoming less patient with unpreparedness in juvenile proceedings where juvenile court is a priority.

An evaluation of the effectiveness of these funded demonstration projects is currently underway. Ray Kirk and Diane Griffith, from the Jordan Institute for Families at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work, will publish the evaluation results later this year.

References

Dial, L. (2000). Personal communication. February 2000.

Hall, M. S. (2000, March). Court improvement: What "we" can do! Workshop presented at the annual N.C. Division of Social Services Children's Services Conference, Charlotte, NC.

Kirk, R. (2000). Personal communication. February 2000.

2000 Jordan Institute for Families