Foster Care Reform

Publication: The Gazette

11/26/2006 - From Associated Press Newswires:

A foster child's journey through Iowa's court system is too often an obstacle course of scheduling delays, a blur of rotating judges and an oft-repeated scenario of inexperienced court-appointed attorneys who meet their clients for the first time outside the courtroom where life-changing decisions are made.

Iowa's new chief justice wants this to change. "It's so important," Marsha Ternus said about the well-being of foster children. "But our judicial handling is shameful."

The judicial handling process is changing. What needs to change with it, both in Iowa and nationally, is a judicial culture that views juvenile cases as lower priority, shown in subtle but telling ways.

County attorney offices, for instance, routinely hand juvenile cases to the newest and inexperienced lawyers. And the state-set attorney compensation fee for most criminal cases is $60 an hour, but for juvenile cases, it's just $55 an hour.

The apparent message: Juvenile cases are less worthy.

Ternus never handled juvenile cases as a lawyer but became an advocate for change at the urging of the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care. Two years ago, the Pew Commission cited judicial shortcomings as roadblocks to moving children more quickly out of foster care and into safe, permanent homes.

Chief justices, including Ternus, have endorsed the Pew Commission's recommendations in principal and are urging state court officials to make changes.

Courts are encouraged to adopt performance measures for tracking and analyzing caseloads and outcomes, forge more collaboration between courts and child welfare cases and create a system that ensures every child and parent has an effective voice in court decisions affecting their lives.

In Iowa, the chief judges from the state's eight judicial districts have been asked to calculate how well their courts are operating and to draft a plan to pair a judge with a child from a case's start to finish.

That gives a judge the chance to have a complete picture without needless backtracking and makes decision-making more reflective of the comprehensive set of facts.

It's not an easy change for every district. Funding, lack of personnel and even geography can make the transition difficult. But it's a change that must happen.

In Iowa's 6th Judicial District, court officials have historically been "very, very" dedicated to juvenile cases, according to Chief Judge David Remley. A personnel shortage was the only thing keeping the district from having a dedicated juvenile case judge. But this year, the Legislature created an additional position, allowing Judge Barbara Liesveld to dedicate most of her time to juvenile cases. The 6th Judicial District is far ahead of Ternus' hoped for timeline for implementing changes. On Jan. 2, the plan-turned-model goes into effect.

Every state's child welfare system varies in its degree of "brokenness," as child welfare advocates call it.

But too often we read the news stories of children who fall through the cracks, in some cases disappearing from the system or injured while in care. Implementing the Pew Commission recommendations in Iowa courts will go a long way toward thwarting future abuses and in getting foster children what they deserve -- safety, permanence and a place to call home.

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