Recently, I was introduced to someone tangentially connected to juvenile CINA court while in a differentmeeting with someone who has been intimately connected to the issues in this area. She noted that she often hears that the “system” is broken and asked what I thought that meant. That conversation was going to be muchlonger than we had time for right then, but in anticipation of a future meeting, I began to think about that.

With regard to DHS (which is who people most often think of when they think of the “system” being “broken”), there are, of course, the usual culprits: caseloads that are too heavy; low morale (often because they are “damned if they do (remove), damned if they don’t (remove),” high turnover, etc. Those things are all true. But there are other things that are not as well known. 

For example, although DHS typically acts as “point person” on a CINA/TPR case, they often don’t have access to the full EDMS file, like attorneys and even CASAs do. I was told they don’t even have access to the reports they file! That does not make sense to me. While it’s true they may not need access to things like “certification of the transcript” by the court reporter, in my opinion, they cannot manage the case effectively unless they have access to all the substantive documents. Even seemingly small things (a motion for transport filed by a parent’s attorney) provide significant information (that parent is in jail) that the worker needs to know. The solution to this is to expand their access; I don’t know whether that has to be done legislatively, or within the “system,” (court or DHS). 

Second, although DHS is typically considered to be the client of the State (represented by the Assistant County Attorney (“ACA”)), the ACA does not often prepare the DHS worker who will likely be called to testify at some point in the process. This isn’t because the ACA is negligent; like the DHS, it also has a heavy caseload, with little to no time to spend on witness prep (if, in fact, the DHS had time to do that). That, combined with the fact that they don’t have access to all the documents, can cause the DHS worker to be “blindsided” on the stand, or at least not as prepared as s/he might otherwise be. One of the “obvious” solutions is more workers and more assistant county attorneys, but since that isn’t likely anytime soon, the question is—how do we “create” more time for them? One way to do that has to do with the reporting DHS is required to do.

The reports they are required to prepare are redundant, difficult to read, and frequently have errors. It is sometimes difficult to determine whether something in a current report is historical or current, because things are often cut and pasted from one report to another, without context. For example, the first report might say, “Mom reports she is using heroin on a daily basis.” That’s fine, because that’s current. However, the 2ndor 3rdreport (which may be several months later), says the exact same thing, instead of, for example, “In May, Mom reported she was using heroin on a daily basis. In June, she went to treatment, and has successfully maintained her sobriety since then.” Further in the report it may note that mom went to treatment in June, but that first paragraph doesn’t clarify that the “use” is past. 

The other problem with “cut and paste” is that if there is an error in the first report, it is carried over into every subsequent report (this is true of FSRP reports as well). I have had hearings where I have objected to every FSRP report or the DHS report because the error was not corrected, despite my objection at the previoushearing. 

While it may be helpful to have a brief “Historical Summary” at the beginning of each report (that would still need to be updated with information from the previous hearing), in my opinion it would be more helpful to only include information from the currentreporting period in the current report. This would also make it harder for DHS/FSRP to “hide” inaction, which would help the court determine whether “reasonable efforts” had been made by DHS towards reunification. Streamlining the reports also recaptures time for both DHS workers and ACAs (and the court, to a certain extent), which could help with the “witness prep time” issue above.

I am also wondering if having a half day where there were no hearings (including emergency hearings, which would just fill up the “free” half-day, defeating the purpose), but were to be used for ACAs and DHS to collaborate might be a good idea. This might require hiring another judge (judges are also already overbooked as well) to make up for the 18 or so cases that would not be heard every week, but that would be less expensive than hiring several new caseworkers and/or ACAs. 

Finally, because of the time constraints, DHS sometimes applies a “bandage” without trying to fix the underlying problem. For example, DHS will sometimes provide rent assistance if it will keep a family together (i.e., keep them out of shelter, which typically separates the family because of the scarcity of family shelters, especially for households headed up by men). But they don’t take the other step of ensuring that the family will be able to pay next month’s rent without assistance. Do they have a job? Do they have disability? Are they eligible for any housing programs? Should they get on the list for family shelter now? Without asking these questions and figuring out the best solution, they are just pushing the problem down the road and wasting resources in the process. 

What if, before approving assistance over a certain amount, the worker had to provide a plan to ensure that the underlying problemhas been addressed? If it’s an emergency, maybe a requirement that the underlying problem be addressed within 14 days—not necessarily solved within that time frame, but a plan in place. Maybe a “one-issue” Family Team Meeting (“FTM” or “FTDM”). 

But DHS isn’t the only part of the system that is juvenile court, nor is it the only part that is broken. 

Attorneys often don’t meet with their clients until the few minutes right before the hearing. To be fair, this is not always their “fault.” Some clients do not respond to their attorneys—some to the point that the attorney ends up withdrawing from the representation because they cannot help the client if the client won’t call them back. 

However, there are also plenty of stories of attorneys not responding to their clients. In the most egregious example I witnessed, an attorney confessed in court that he had not talked to his attorney for “a couple months.” During those “couple months,” the client had relapsed, her child was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness that required long-term hospitalization out of state, and the previous foster parents no longer wanted to foster. But he knew none of this because he had not called her to check in. How in the world does he think that’s adequate representation? In my opinion, that attorney should be removed and a new one assigned, absent “good cause” for the non-contact (which would, of course, include unsuccessful attempts to contact the client).

With regard to guardian ad litem reports, I am astonished that more GALs don’t write them (it permits them to share more information, uninterrupted, and in greater detail than simply reporting the information in court ever allows) and am equally stunned when parents’ attorneys don’t read them. In one of my cases, a parent’s attorney said she felt blindsided when I asked in court for the kids to be moved from placement to Dad. I was perplexed by this, as it was in my report. When I pointed that out, she said, “But it wasn’t in DHS’ report!” To which I replied (rather uncharitably), “So?” In other words, neither my report nor my recommendations have to echo DHS’ report, though they may. If she chooses not to read my report, that’s her decision, but she shouldn’t play the “blindsided” card. 

There are also attorneys who don’t understand how juvenile court differs from nearly every other court. It is more collaborative, exhibits are offered/received differently, and there are significantly more hearings. Occasionally people will say they wish they could afford a private pay attorney (rather than a court-appointed one), but typically (though not always) the court appointed ones have more experience and knowledge than the private pay attorneys who are doing your wills, your real estate, and even family law. One case was particularly bad—the attorney filed the appeal under the wrong case number (not realizing, apparently, that the CINA case has a separate case number from the TPR case) and had the appeal dismissed as a result. 

Of course, there are other things that plague nearly every organization that are also present with DHS and the legal profession: incompetence, inexperience, poor management/ leadership. Unfortunately, the other problems with the system only serve to exacerbate those more common problems. 

People complain about how “broken” the system is, but don’t seem to ever want to do anything to fix it. I get it—it seems like an overwhelming problem, and most people don’t believe they have any influence over it. But even some of these smaller changes could help tremendously. 

What’s Broken?
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