As a community pastor ministering to foster and probation youth in Northern California, I know how important it is for teachers, family friends, clergy, mentors and others to support these youth at dependency and delinquency juvenile court hearings. By attending, they demonstrate to the children that they are not alone in a very uncertain world, much of which is far beyond their control.
Resiliency studies and evidence-based research overwhelmingly point to the necessity of consistent and committed adults in the lives of system-involved youths. Without such caring and dedicated adults, positive outcomes are less likely.
For example, I attended a dependency hearing for foster youth Kay* just four days before her 18th birthday earlier this year, alongside her teacher and an advocate from a community-based organization as supporters.
The three of us were concerned because once Kay turned 18, she would have to leave a shelter for minors. I brought her to that shelter after she left her group home to couch surf and live on the streets rather than be subjected to the terms and conditions of her foster care placement.
Kay’s circumstances were the result of not being granted an appropriate placement despite the many requests she made to her social worker. Kay’s advocate anticipated that Kay’s social worker would not respond to Kay’s urgent housing needs at the hearing, and took the initiative to find Kay a congregate home specializing in transition-aged foster youth.
In court, Kay’s social worker objected to this placement option and cited policies that would prevent her from approving it. But these types of placements are often made without the additional steps the social worker insisted on.
The judge eventually directed the social worker to proceed with the opportunity so Kay would not become homeless in four days. But by the time the court wrangling was concluded, the bed that had been available was given to someone else.
In her desperation, Kay ended up in an adult shelter. After an afternoon outing, Kay was assaulted overnight, and missed curfew. The next day, shelter staff told her she no longer had a bed due to missing curfew. After temporary homelessness, Kay found a different shelter for disabled adults, which was not suited to her age or situation.
A month after that frustrating round in dependency court, Kay had a delinquency hearing. Unfortunately, she was involved with both the county’s foster care and juvenile justice systems. The judge thanked me for attending and my activity on Kay’s behalf. Kay’s social worker was not in attendance.
But those who were there all celebrated Kay’s recent high school graduation and release from probation. She received a bouquet of flowers and several rounds of applause. The judge who had been blinking back tears at Kay’s triumphs left the bench to give Kay a rose, a stuffed bear and a card. The judge “oohed and aahed” at Kay’s graduation pictures on her phone, and smiled at me when he saw that I was at her graduation, too.
Then the judge posed for a picture with Kay on her “freedom day.” She literally danced away as she was freed from involvement with the chains of probation, probation officers, delinquency court and public defenders.
I would like to say that the experience of Kay’s dependency court hearing is rare. And I wish the experience of probation youth being honored in delinquency court hearings were more common.
But my experiences serving systems-involved youth have been marked by extreme contrasts. I have been asked to support these kids both in and out of court by their lawyers, social workers, district attorney offices, case managers, probation officers, counselors and group home staff, as well as juvenile court judges and detention personnel.
Yet I have also had my efforts to minister to system-involved youth hindered and prevented by others in those same exact same roles. Such impediments are detrimental to the best interests of these youth and often illegal.
California standards through the Department of Social Services require that foster youth “be free to attend religious services and activities of his or her choice and to have outside visits from the spiritual adviser of his/her choice.” The state’s Board of State and Community Corrections Title 15 standards for youth placed in juvenile detention facilities require that detained youth be assisted in contacting their clergy.
I have asked city, county, state and federal officials to exert their authority on behalf of these and many other youths. Yet I have received no substantive, if any, response to protect these kids’ rights.
A Casey Family Programs Study of 188 foster youth showed that 95 percent of them believe in God, and 86 percent of those believers gain spiritual strength from their faith. One of the study’s recommendations was for spirituality, religious or otherwise, to be incorporated into foster youth casework. My prayer is simply that foster and probation youth not be prohibited by system officials from free exercise of their faith, just as the First Amendment promises.
As a pastor, my role is to walk beside these youth through difficult stretches in life as a shepherd. For system-involved youth, court appearances are especially difficult, and the faith-based community’s support there is like cold water in scorching heat to them.
Note: Kay is a pseudonym being used to protect the identity of a child.
Mark Fisher is a community pastor for Seek & Save, a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit serving vulnerable and victimized young.
This story is a part of a Chronicle series called “Hearings,” where our reporters and guest contributors provide an inside look at how child welfare courts function.
In about half the states in the country, child welfare proceedings are closed to the public and media – despite the fact that they are places where children enter foster care; where families are ripped apart, sometimes put back together and otherwise – through adoption – made anew.
If you are a judge, parent, foster youth, attorney or an advocate for families … we want to hear from you. Share a story from a recent dependency court experience that you believe speaks to a problem or a success story.
Anonymity may be granted depending on the nature of your contribution. Our intent with this – and all Chronicle projects – is to ethically cover the child welfare system, which often means protecting the names and identities of children and families caught up in it.