Hearings: Stories from Inside America’s Child Welfare Courts

Judges Julia Garratt (far left) and Patricia Clark (center) at a family treatment court graduation in Seattle. Photo courtesy of Eyewang Pictures.

On Wednesday, The Imprint will publish its first installment of “Hearings,” a series of stories from a corner of the law that is not reported on enough – America’s child welfare courts.

Across the country these tribunals – often called juvenile dependency or family court – are routinely witness to some of the most high stakes legal proceedings in American jurisprudence. While criminal courts and their most severe punishments – the death penalty, life in prison – are widely known and debated, how many Americans pause to consider the commonplace legal practice of forever severing parents from their children?

How many Americans understand that children have no federally mandated right to legal counsel in these proceedings, and that parents in some states are not guaranteed a lawyer until the pivotal hearings where their parental rights will be terminated? Like the death penalty or life in prison, the effects of this most severe end of juvenile dependency law irrevocably change lives, and must be understood by the public.

Children who are wrongly removed from their parents lose the most fundamental building block of their development. And parents who lose their children suffer immensely. As a father, I would prefer life behind bars to losing the right to watch my son grow.

There are times when the decision to terminate parental rights is the right one. But these often overlooked courtrooms are known for attorney caseloads that soar into the hundreds and hearings that are often counted in minutes.

For all the decisions that the court will make – detention, removal, placement, reunification, termination of parental rights and adoption – to be done right requires a well-resourced, excellent juvenile dependency court system, which is far from the rule.

Through “Hearings” we will deploy our editorial staff around the country to visit and report from child welfare courts, with an eye on telling broader truths about the process based on the cases we witness. We will also work with outside contributors to share the valuable perspectives of parents, attorneys, judges and others who wish to tell their story.

This project is but our opening salvo in a broader commitment to substantially cover justice for families in crisis. In December, the federal government changed a key rule that could free up hundreds of millions of new dollars to pay for better legal representation for children and parents. This significant development has stirred great interest across the child welfare field, and promises to spur a transformation in how these courts function.

But even without this change, I cannot think of a more pressing civil rights question for us to investigate. In 2019 and beyond, the courts and their awesome power will be a strong focus of our work.

Please read, share and tell us what you think about Hearings.

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.

To contribute to “Hearings,” e-mail info@chronicleofsocialchange.org. Please be sure to include your name, your location, and your role in a child welfare case.

A recent federal rule change could mean hundreds of millions of new funds for top-flight legal advocacy, and portends a new era of family justice in child welfare. Intense media coverage of this issue will drive increased funding for quality legal representation at the county, state and federal level.

Will you help us sustain our coverage of family justice?

Your support allows The Imprint to provide independent, nonpartisan daily news covering the issues faced by vulnerable children and families.

Subscribe or Donate

New look, same commitment to #childwelfare & #juvenilejustice. Karen de Sá is now leading @TheImprintNews, formerly The Chronicle of Social Change: "I cannot think of a better job, or more worthy topics for much-needed, in-depth and ethical news coverage." https://j.mp/2Xnp6gO

Contra Costa County's DA plans task force with eye on closing juvenile hall, expanding community alternatives https://bit.ly/2EThagP #juvenilejustice