National Effort Unveiled To Improve The Nation's Foster Care System
Representatives from state courts and child welfare agencies have developed specific recommendations to improve foster care systems throughout the country as part of a National Call to Action released by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). State Supreme Court justices partnered with other state leaders to develop the National Call to Action to help reduce the length of time children spend in foster care. Their recommendations provide states with a clear road map and needed resources to improve outcomes for our nation's children living in foster care.
Today more than 500,000 children live in foster care. Half of the children will spend at least two years in the system and one in five children will be in the system for five years or more. Although foster care is often an essential step in helping abused and neglected children, court delays can often extend the time between when children enter the system and when they are placed in safe, permanent homes. While in this 'limbo,' many children and families do not receive the assistance they need to allow children to return home safely or prepare them to join another family.
"Implementation of these plans will go a long way to make substantial progress toward reducing the amount of time children spend in the foster care system," said Chief Justice of Indiana Randall T. Shepard, President of the Conference of Chief Justices. "It will bring these children one step closer to the safe and permanent families they need and deserve."
The National Call to Action is the result of the landmark National Judicial Leadership Summit for the Protection of Children: Changing Lives by Changing Systems (the Summit), which was held in Minnesota in September 2005. Leaders of 49 state court systems (Louisiana was unable to participate due to Hurricane Katrina), the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories participated in the Summit. As part of the Summit, each state developed an action plan to improve its child protection procedures and programs. The NCSC, which coordinated the Summit, compiled the team plans into the National Call to Action.
"When a court case sits on the docket, a child sits in foster care," said former Chief Justice of Minnesota Kathleen Blatz, who co-chaired the Summit.
"While foster care is supposed to be their lifeboat, for many children it's become the Titanic. The delay in finding a permanent caring home can ave a profound affect on a child," said NCSC President Mary Campbell McQueen.
While all state action plans address specific local needs and challenges, there was considerable consensus across major areas needing improvement and the steps required to achieve these changes. Drawing on recommendations from the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, state teams identified the following strategies underpinning their action plans:
- Establish accountability for permanence, child safety, and well-being through enhanced performance measurement systems.
- Foster collaboration among courts and executive branch agencies to ensure better outcomes for children who are in the child protection network.
- Provide judicial leadership in championing the needs of children in child protection status and effecting changes to improve outcomes for children.
- Provide an effective voice in courts for children and parents through representation by trained attorneys and advocates.
"The partnership between the state supreme courts and child welfare agencies is unprecedented," added Lee Suskin, Vermont state court administrator. "Our shared commitment to reducing court delays for foster children bodes well for the success of these action plans."
Implementation of the state action plans is currently underway in each of the participating jurisdictions. Activities include:
- Establishing commissions of state and local judicial and child services leaders to develop collaborative approaches to system improvement;
- Implementing performance standards and best practices;
- Changing rules and practices to reduce delay without compromising fairness;
- Creating management information or case tracking systems to strengthen monitoring of the process;
- Providing training to judges, attorneys, and court and agency professionals to enable them to better address the needs of abused or neglected children.
A one-year progress report will be issued in the fall of 2006 to highlight progress and encourage further reforms to improve the lives of children in foster care.
In May 2004, the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care issued recommendations that call for improving court oversight of foster care cases and reducing the delays in placing children in safe and permanent homes. These recommendations, endorsed by the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA), served as the Summit's central themes. The Pew Charitable Trusts was a major funder of the Summit.
Recently, the Deficit Reduction Act (DRA) of 2005 included provisions which reflect several of the Pew Commission's major court recommendations. The DRA also provides $100 million over five years to help courts more effectively track child protection cases and to monitor the process, and to enable judges and court personnel to receive specialized training. DRA provisions also provide a vehicle to strengthen and to encourage collaboration between courts and child protection agencies. These provisions will facilitate state court efforts to implement the plans summarized in the National Call to Action.
The National Center for State Courts, founded in 1971 by Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger, is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the administration of justice and provides leadership, research, technology, education, and training to the state courts. The National Center also is taking the lead on several key issues facing the justice system. For example, the National Center is working to improve citizens' participation in the jury system, reform the judicial selection process, and develop a model policy on public access to court records. The National Center is headquartered in Williamsburg, Va., with offices in Washington, D.C. and Denver, Colo.