Achieving Equity for Families in Denver Juvenile Court

Barbara Bosley[1]

Denver Juvenile Court (the “Court”) is one court that is taking the lead in Colorado, along with other courts in the nation, to reduce disparate and disproportionate case outcomes, particularly among African-American, Hispanic, Native American and Asian families. Through a series of innovative and collaborative efforts, the Court is continuing to improve outcomes for families involved in the Court’s dependency & neglect (“D&N”) cases.[2] This article highlights and summarizes those efforts to achieve equity.  

Background

Thousands of D&N cases are filed across the state each year.[3] In Denver Juvenile Court, there were nearly a thousand cases filed by Denver Department of Human Services (DDHS) from July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2011.[4] These cases involve parents and children ranging in age from newborn to 18 years of age.[5] These children were placed out of the home for a variety of reasons, including neglect, abandonment, a child beyond the control of a parent, substance abuse, domestic violence, and/or incarceration of a parent. They may have been moved to kin, foster families or other types of placements, such as congregate care,[6] group homes, or residential, until such time that the family could be reunified. Reunification of the child generally occurs once the parent or legal guardian is able to demonstrate to the court that safety concerns or other risk factors have been eliminated.

As a means to improve its practices and procedures, in 2005 the Court became involved with the Model Court Program, which is sponsored by the National Council of Juvenile & Family Court Judges (“NCJFCJ”). The Model Court Program was designed to help member jurisdictions all across the country improve practices and procedures, specifically those affecting D&N cases.[7] At the direction of Denver Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Karen Ashby, a number of stakeholders were invited to begin participating in the Denver Model Court. These stakeholders included a variety of representatives, i.e., respondent parent counsel, guardians ad litem (“GAL”), judicial officers, court staff, Court Appointed Special Advocates (“CASA”), community members, treatment providers and DDHS. This collaborative began meeting on a regular basis to discuss improvements to court practices and implement changes in child abuse & neglect cases. 

Research

Denver Model Court initially developed three separate sub-committees that met once a month to discuss creation of procedures or protocols that, when implemented, would improve the flow of D&N cases, and ultimately help families and children.   

One of the three first sub-committees was named the “Minority Over-Representation” committee (“MOR”).[8] Its goal was to “identify specific areas of minority over-representation in Denver's system and develop a strategy to reduce over-representation by engaging the community in early intervention efforts and family mentoring.”[9] At the time there were no published data on disproportionality of Denver’s D&N cases. The MOR committee then began a journey to ascertain data of disproportionality, as well as disparity in services for families.

The initial project was creation of a research study.[10] It was designed to look at specific D&N cases within the Court.[11] A proposal was prepared that included the costs of research, as well as the purpose, the need, the procedures, and an outline of the evaluation process, which led to submission of an application in early 2009 to the Colorado Division for Criminal Justice Formula Grant Program. Approval was announced later that year and the work on the research is ongoing.

The Disparities Action Committee (“DAC”) (f/k/a MOR) will have the task, once the final data are known, to evaluate the findings. Those findings will include information about family composition, demographics, age, and other indicators. They will be used to measure cultural aspects of race/ethnicity as well as any issues of poverty. It was also anticipated that screenings would be done for indicators of bias, potentially among the people who directly touched the cases, such as child welfare staff, judicial officers, CASA, attorneys, and GALs.  

Ultimately the DAC will be charged with recommending specific changes, based on the data, if any, that should occur in the way cases are handled. Those changes may be procedural, or they may require more substantive action that will influence the types and frequency of services that are provided to families.

It is anticipated that once the outcomes and recommendations for improved practices within Denver Juvenile Court are shared, other jurisdictions will take steps to do likewise, and conduct similar research and investigation into the level of disparity and disproportionality within D&N cases.

Collaborative Summits

On April 11, 2007, Denver Juvenile Court co-sponsored a full-day conference, along with the two other Colorado Model Court Programs in Adams and El Paso Counties, the Colorado Court Improvement Project, and NCJFCJ. The conference was entitled, “A Colorado Summit on Disproportionate Representation: A Focus on Our Children,” and it was held at a local Denver hotel. The attendees had a full-day opportunity to hear Judge Patricia Martin Bishop, Presiding Judge of the Cook County Child Protection Division; Hasan Davis, Director of Empowerment Solutions; and Judge William Thorne of the Utah Court of Appeals. Topics included local efforts and strategies to successfully reduce disproportionality, as well as a long-term vision for future efforts. Participants were also reminded of the significance of the Indian Child Welfare Act (“ICWA”) and how it applies to child abuse cases.[12]

Subsequently, on May 21, 2009, a “Colorado Summit on Racial Ethnic Disproportionate Representation and Disparate Treatment in the Child Welfare System” (“Summit”) was held in Boulder, Colorado, at the University of Colorado Law School, sponsored by Denver Juvenile Court and Casey Family Programs. Those attending were encouraged to consider what they could do in their respective jurisdictions to decrease practices that may have disparate and disproportionate outcomes for families because of race or ethnicity. The Welcome and the Focus for the Day was delivered by Judge Ashby. During the full-day workshop, a number of nationally recognized speakers in the field of racial and ethnic equity helped frame the issues for the attendees.[13]

A unique aspect of the day was that participants had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with others from the same discipline. Human services professionals, attorneys, judicial officers and court staff, among others, met separately to discuss ways each profession could help reduce the high rates of disproportionality and disparity in child welfare cases in general. Near the end of the day, teams from each of the nine jurisdictions[14] conferred separately to coordinate local strategies as well as offer ideas on steps that could be taken in their own communities to impact disproportionality and disparity.  

Parent Partner Program

One of the strategies the Denver group discussed at the Summit in Boulder was to develop a parent support or mentoring group based on the rationale that a parent in a newly-filed D&N case would benefit by having contact with a parent who has previously been involved in a D&N case.

Later that year, a group of Denver stakeholders, in collaboration with the DAC, began a series of meetings to organize and launch a similar program. Months of planning and preparation were conducted by the DAC. DAC members learned about a Parent Partners program at a workshop presentation during the 2009 Colorado Child Welfare Summit.[15] Subsequently, they obtained valuable start up and implementation information from a Parent Partner program in Jefferson County. In the spring of 2010 a group from Denver participated in a one-day training sponsored by Casey Family Programs, designed to assist jurisdictions in developing a Parent Partner program. Representatives were present from cities where programs were already in place, along with cities, like Denver, where programs were being developed.

Ultimately, in 2010 the first group of Denver Parent Partners was identified. The parents have continued to meet weekly and have changed the name of their program to Denver Parents Advocating Leadership Skills (“DPALS”). After participating in a series of training classes in early 201l some of them have now been matched with parents coming into the system. In the fall of 2012 the next set of DPALS will undergo a series of training and begin their role as mentors.

Parent Handbook

As a means to provide extra support and valuable information to parents when they first appear in court, the DAC has also produced a “Parents Handbook.”  Printed in both English and Spanish, the Handbook is a three-ring binder containing numerous documents. It is distributed to a parent the first time he or she comes to court. One of the documents included is a written advisement for parents in D&N cases. The parent can also get information about specific events in the case. There is even a calendar to record dates of hearings and meetings. A popular item for parents, the Handbook is also used to keep all of the parent’s important documents in one place.

Courts Catalyzing Change Benchcard

In the ongoing efforts to lower rates of disparities and disproportionality, Denver Juvenile Court is now the first in the state to adopt use of what is called the “Courts Catalyzing Change” Benchcard.[16] It was developed by NCJFCJ, in partnership with the Casey Family Programs. (A benchcard is a card (sometimes laminated) or sheet of paper that contains a check-off list of items or a series of questions for referral by a judicial officer, either prior to or during a hearing.)       

The Court began implementation of the Benchcard on March 1, 2012, on a pilot basis with cases filed in one of the three judicial divisions. The Benchcard contains a series of questions that cover such areas as how to engage parents in the courtroom; the appropriateness of placement; the legal threshold for removal and reasonable efforts to prevent removal; as well as reasonable efforts to allow the child to safely return home, among others.

In order to assure a successful implementation, it was important to bring all stakeholders within the Court into the process. Last fall a number of representatives from DDHS, the Court, CASA, as well as attorneys, and GALs met for a one-day workshop to learn about the Benchcard. The day also offered an opportunity to have facilitated conversations on institutional racism and how bias influences the decisions that are made within the child welfare system. The speakers also provided data that illustrated disproportionality among races in Denver. Discussion also included ways that each person can be responsible to see that the goals of the Benchcard are reached (e.g., being aware of one’s own biases; asking additional questions of the family to gain more information about the issues that brought the family to court; as well as including families in the discussions).

One of the next steps toward implementation was a CLE at the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse, designed to give more stakeholders the opportunity to learn about the Benchcard.  Within the following week a mock hearing was held in one of the courtrooms to illustrate to the audience how a hearing may be held once the Benchcard is in use. Key to all of these activities was to encourage all stakeholders to gain knowledge, not only about the Benchcard, but also how the use of it will impact families involved in D&N cases.

Conclusion

Improving outcomes for families involved in the child welfare system is, and has been, a priority for Denver Juvenile Court. By identifying and implementing promising practices that will reduce disparity and disproportionality, the Court is taking the path that will help achieve its goal. It is important to have specific data related to the ethnic composition of its families, and the Court is making efforts to see that this is achieved. Continued collaboration with stakeholders, whether through workshops, one-day summits, or monthly meetings, is also imperative for everyone who is working to improve outcomes. Denver Juvenile Court has made great strides in making a positive impact on its families, and through the innovative efforts outlined above, it is on its way to reaching its goal.

 

 

 


[1] Barbara Bosley is Family Court Facilitator, Denver Juvenile Court.

[2] Colorado Children’s Code, Art. 3, Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. §19-3-100.5–§19-3-703 (West 2012). A D&N case is filed when the health and safety of a child or children are at risk and the involvement of the juvenile court is necessary.

[3] In fiscal year 2011 for the Colorado State Judicial Branch, 3,276 cases were filed. See Colorado Judicial Branch, District Court Juvenile Filings by Type of Case, in Annual Statistical Report for Fiscal Year 2011, tbl.19, at 60–65, available at http://www.courts.state.co.us/userfiles/file/Administration/Planning_and_Analysis/Annual_Statistical_Reports/2011/District%20Court/Table19.pdf.

[4] See id. (434 cases in 2011); see also Colorado Judicial Branch, District Court Juvenile Filings by Type of Case, in Annual Statistical Report for Fiscal Year 2010, tbl.19, at 66–73, available at http://www.courts.state.co.us/userfiles/file/Administration/Planning_and_Analysis/Annual_Statistical_Reports/2010/District%20Court/Table19.pdf  (517 cases in 2010).

[5] D&N cases also include Expedited Permanency Planning (EPP) cases, a type of D&N case where at least one child is under the age of six. See Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. §19-1-123 (West 2012).

[6] Residents who live in congregate care live in a residence where they share meals and have access to services and other activities.

[7] El Paso (4th Jud. Dist.) and Adams (17th Jud. Dist.) also participated during the same period of time in the Model Court Program. The Model Court Program currently numbers twenty-three Child Model Courts nationwide. See http://www.ncjfcj.org/our-work/dependency-model-court-list. 

[8] The original MOR committee members included a judge, Court staff, respondent parent counsel, GAL, and representatives from DDHS, Denver Indian Family Resource Center (DIFRC), Denver Collaborative Partnership, CASA, as well as community members.

[9] See Denver Model Court 2005–2006 Goals (on file with author).

[10] The full name of the project is “Denver MOR for Less: Understanding & Affecting Juvenile Court Policy to Achieve Systemic Change.”

[11] Three hundred cases were randomly selected, representing families of four ethnic groups: African-American, Hispanic, Native American and Caucasian. Another criterion, besides ethnicity, was that the children were involved in the juvenile justice system.  

[12] Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, 25 U.S.C. §§ 1901–1963 (West). The ICWA’s enactment was based on “extensive evidence indicating that large number of Indian children were being separated from their families and tribes and were being placed in non-Indian homes through state adoption, foster care, and parental rights termination proceedings, and that this practice caused serious problems for the children, their parents and their tribes.” Miss. Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30, 30 (1989).

[13] Judge Joe E. Smith, Associate District Court Judge, Des Moines, Iowa; Oronde Miller, Senior Director of Strategic Consulting, Casey Family Programs; Dr. Rita Cameron Wedding, PhD. Professor of Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies, Sacramento State University; Susan Kelly, Casey Family Programs.

[14] Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Denver, El Paso, Jefferson, Larimer, Rio Grande, and Weld counties, along with representatives from Casey Family Programs, Colorado State Department of Human Services, Denver Indian Family Resource Center, and American Humane Association.

[15] A statewide conference held in Colorado for human services and judicial representatives that work in the child welfare arena.

[16] http://ncjfcj.org/sites/default/files/CCC%20Bench%20Card%20Insertsfinal.pdf