A group of leading juvenile and family court judges in Texas is advocating for some virtual hearings to remain standard practice – even when courthouses reopen for in-person proceedings after COVID-19 recedes.
Contrary to early pandemic concerns that shuttering courtrooms would be catastrophic to child welfare cases, judges speaking at a news conference via Zoom on Thursday said switching to virtual court hearings has had “immediate and lasting positive consequences.”
Among their reasons: Children, accustomed to communicating digitally feel more comfortable testifying through a screen from the privacy of their bedrooms. Low-income parents can attend court hearings during breaks at work without having to take time off. And judges who oversee multiple rural counties are able to be more flexible in scheduling and responsive to emergent needs because they no longer have to travel hours to far-flung courthouses.
“Overnight, I could literally be in more than one place at one time,” said Judge Melissa DeGerolami, who presides over the child protective court in six counties, at the virtual press briefing. “Texas is a big state, and we have children placed all over the state. This made our world much smaller and our community much closer automatically.”
Juvenile and family court judges handle cases involving domestic violence, custody and child support, children and teens accused of crimes and parents under investigation for abuse or neglect. In child welfare cases, judges hold immense power, determining whether children should be removed from their homes and what steps parents must take to regain custody. In all cases, multiple attorneys representing all sides of the cases must convene in court for regular check-ins.
The panel of judges speaking at the Thursday news conference hosted by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges said holding hearings online has helped prevent backlogs, expedited emergency hearings and allowed judges to better monitor cases needing extra supervision.
Virtual platforms have also allowed for more precise scheduling, preventing social workers and parents from spending hours standing by in courthouse waiting rooms for their turn to appear before the judge. Online hearings, in contrast, can be scheduled in precise time slots.
“The pandemic has presented many challenges to our courts, but it’s also presenting enormous opportunities,” said Teri Deal, a consultant with the National Center for State Courts.
Cultural norms of all kinds have been upended by the pandemic, but years ago, there were skeptics of virtual juvenile court hearings. In 2015, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission issued a report concluding that “the use of video conference technology is inappropriate in juvenile court hearings.” The report found virtual formats prevented lawyers from being able to confer privately with their clients and that poor camera angles or audio distortions could impact the way a person is perceived in court.
During the pandemic, attorneys for parents have told The Imprint their clients have had their parental rights terminated as they sat in their cars, sobbing into cellphones.
Researchers in an ongoing study into virtual court hearings being conducted by the National Center for State Courts with funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation have observed parents being distracted in virtual hearings, dialing in while driving or with limited privacy, Deal said.
Texas is one of five states participating in the study, which will examine how participants access virtual proceedings and assess any technological barriers. Researchers will explore perceptions of fairness in virtual court hearings and ask parents and older foster youth if they felt they had the opportunity to be heard.
Family courtrooms across the Lone Star State closed their doors last March 13, as many parts of the country went into the first pandemic lockdown. Recognizing the urgency in addressing children’s safety and permanency needs, courts were quick to make the switch to virtual proceedings, said Chief Justice Darlene Byrne of the 3rd Court of Appeals, who until January was the presiding judge in Travis County’s child welfare court.
Since then, more than 1 million hearings statewide have been held on Zoom.
The Texas judges join judicial officers in other states including New York who are calling for some elements of child welfare and family court proceedings to remain virtual even after courthouses reopen as the pandemic ebbs.
In interviews for an article published in The Imprint last month, 10 court professionals said that pre-trial conferences, hearings that don’t involve testimony, and initial arraignments may never again need to be conducted in person.
Manhattan family court judge Jane Pearl said, looking forward: “I believe we should not be requiring parents to come to court unnecessarily.”
Courts nationwide will know more about the quality of justice of virtual hearings in the coming months, when the national study is complete. Its goal is to equip court professionals with data and best practices to improve the online court process going forward.
“We realize now virtual hearings are not just a Band-Aid for the pandemic,” Deal said, “and will likely continue in some fashion in many jurisdictions.”