Court officials try to see through eyes of child
Judge Carlton Clark, others lauded for efforts
Imagine having to leave your home, and everything familiar, and move in with a family you don’t know.
Think about how that must feel to a child, who is dependent physically and emotionally, on a parent.
If a 5-year-old is removed from a home for a year, Dawson County Judge Carlton Clark said the time represents 20% of his or her life.“That’s a long time,” Clark said. “A month for a child is a long time.”
Clark said the court, and other entities that deal with child welfare cases, take too much time to get children back home or in a permanent living situation.
Through a Nebraska Supreme Court Initiative, “Through the Eyes of a Child,” local multidisciplinary teams work collaboratively to bring the best court and legal practices to their communities.
Initiative a collaboration
The initiative was created at a state conference in 2006 involving judges, Health and Human Services and foster care representatives and others.
“If we want to help kids get back home, we need to do everything we can to help them go back,” Clark said. “If not, we need to get the child in a more permanent home as soon as possible and not four to five different homes.”
At the local level in Dawson County, a team of judges, attorneys, CASA workers, Health and Human Services and foster care representatives meet regularly to review and discuss cases.
Attorney Lisa Jorgenson of Gothenburg is a member of the team.
During his state of the judiciary speech in January, Nebraska Supreme Court chief justice Mike Heavican praised the Dawson County team, led by Clark, in continually outperforming the state in bringing welfare cases forward.
County leads in closure
For example, in 2010 in the county, cases from the petition stage (a document asking the court to put a child under it’s supervision) to closure of the case, the median was 13 months compared to 19 months for the state.
Medians, in this case, represent the center point for cases. That means half of the cases had time that was shorter than the median and half took longer than the median.
In 2009, the median was six months compared to the state median of 18 months.
Besides meeting regularly, the county team expedites cases by:
Ice breakers—When parents meet with the family or person keeping the child to learn special things about the child and find ways to communicate while the child is not in the primary home.
“It helps clear away concern that foster parents are child stealers,” Clark said. “And to let parents know the foster parents are there to help the child.”
The goal, he said, is to get the process moving so the child can be returned to the home as soon as possible if that is what the court determines.
Pre-hearing conferences—Within a week to 10 days of a child’s removal from home, parents and providers and everyone else involved meet to decide what needs to be done before the case is heard by a judge.
Before the initiative, Clark said parents would often show up for a hearing, without an attorney, and there would be confusion about what was happening. Another hearing would be set in 30 days and another 30 days later and the case might drag on for six months while the child lived in foster care or with a relative.
Safeguards in place
When a child is removed from a home now, Clark said an attorney is appointed whether needed or not within 10 days.
In such situations, he said the team tries to put the child in a home with a relative even if it’s only temporary.
Collaboration is key to moving child welfare cases through the court system.
Foster parents know they can call someone from Health and Human Services for help, Clark said. An example might be finding out how to sign up to learn how to clean house or how to care for a healthy baby.
“It opens the channels of communication so things move faster,” he said.
Clark was quick to say that parties can still come to court and resolve differences.
However he noted that courts are adversarial systems where one side is against the other.
“Rather than looking at the child, cases are delayed because of the adversarial system instead of seeing what we can do for the child,” Clark explained.
Clark walks fine line
Because he’s a judge, Clark said he has to be careful with his involvement on the team and can’t be part of ice breaker events or pre-conference hearings.
“I have to maintain my ability to decide cases and recognize the rights of all parties,” he said.
As the county’s population base increased in the last 10 to 15 years, Clark said the number of child welfare cases has risen as well.
He said he expects those numbers to drop as the area stabilizes in population.
Clark said he’s seen an increasing number of children welfare cases in homes where there is substance abuse.
A couple of weeks ago, Clark estimated there were 65 children in Dawson County not living in their primary homes.
The biggest challenge in working with child welfare cases, Clark said, is trying to keep focused on what’s best for the child—not for the parent.
“That’s hard to do sometimes,” he said.
Judges play big role
Everyone should have a right to raise a child but judges have to decide what is best because of neglect and/or abuse in the home, drug and/or alcohol use and other issues, he said.
Another challenge is keeping quality, trained people working in the health and human services department.
Because HHS employees work 24/7 and issues with the privatization of the state’s child services, Clark said it’s a struggle keeping them.
Currently, he said the court system works with HHS from North Platte because the department in Lexington lost workers and needed assistance.
“When workers come from out of town, they can’t always be there and it’s difficult to provide some services over the phone,” Clark said. “Because they’re an hour away, you lose supervision.”
Still, Clark said he’s optimistic the situation will change, not only for HHS workers, but for children in the system.
“There’s hope,” he said. “There’s always hope.”