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September 2010Vol. 11, No. 7Florida's Court Improvement Program

Since 1995, Florida's Dependency Court Improvement Program (CIP) has been working with courts and child welfare partners to improve the child welfare process. So, when the State completed its second Federal Child and Family Services Review (CFSR) in 2008, it was only natural that CIP staff would use the CFSR results to examine ways in which the courts could have a more positive impact. Reviewing the results of each CFSR item with a broad lens, the staff developed a strategic plan—a court-related Quality Improvement Plan (QIP)—that reflected the State's own Program Improvement Plan.

This QIP became the CIP's action plan for the next 18 months. CIP staff, working closely with the Florida multidisciplinary Dependency Court Improvement Panel, chaired by the Honorable Jeri B. Cohen, carried out a number of strategic initiatives:

  • CIP staff worked with the State's Dependency Panel to adopt a safety assessment tool for judges and magistrates. Training was provided on the American Bar Association's Child Safety: A Guide for Judges and Attorneys. Training opportunities included judicial college and the annual Dependency Summit.
  • Staff and the panel developed an initiative to involve more children in court. They distributed a resource packet to judges and court staff on involving children in court proceedings, and they offered trainings, workshops, and resources, including videos and guides for both youth and younger children and parents on attending and understanding court proceedings.
  • Focused on the idea that the needs of the children and their families should be identified as early as possible, staff and the statewide panel developed a Shelter Hearing model. This was designed to help judges make the best decisions for children and youth at the hearing that occurs within 24 hours after their initial removal. A Shelter Hearing benchcard was pilot-tested by five judges and received favorable feedback. The benchcard was distributed to all dependency court judges, and an evaluation will examine how judges are using the card.
  • A concurrent case planning model was also pilot-tested in one court to help judges and families better understand how to pursue alternative permanency goals for children in cases where family reunification was not possible. After a favorable reception, the model is being shared with other courtrooms.
  • CIP staff and the panel identified practices for dealing with placement disruption included in new hearing benchcards. In addition, staff developed a guide to help caregivers better understand their rights. The best practices empower caregivers to ask questions in court and request support so that they can make long-term commitments to children.
  • Staff and the panel developed checklists to help judges make better decisions about education, health care, dental care, and mental health care for children. They also developed benchcards for eight dependency court hearings.

The dependency court benchbook is being revised to include all of the developments that came out of the QIP. The book will be released later this year.

Having completed their QIP, Florida's CIP staff are not slowing down. The CIP office, which includes 15-16 staff, has a number of other projects, including:

  • Establishing CIP model courts statewide to implement the practices outlined in the new benchbook
  • Devising a way to import basic data from agencies to populate the Florida Dependency Court Information System
  • Continuing to conduct trainings across the State, as well as hold regional judicial retreats that give judges and magistrates a chance to network
  • Assisting with the planning of the annual Dependency Summit

Guided by the steadfast and creative leadership of Judge Cohen, coupled with the QIP as the roadmap, the recent work of the CIP and the statewide panel has begun to show positive results. According to Sandy Neidert, Senior Court Operations Consultant, "We know from anecdotal evidence that more children are now coming to court." Another benefit of the CIP work has been the increased pride that dependency court judges show in their work. As the CIP has provided more opportunities for training and networking, these judges and magistrates have begun to share more information with each other and to participate in the CIP's pilot programs and model court programs.

Florida's CIP staff continues to work with courts across the State, developing resources and implementing new programs, evaluating their results, and sharing their best practices. Read about their latest initiatives and access their resources on Florida's Office of Court Improvement website:

Other State resources are available on the CIP page of the National Resource Center for Legal and Judicial Issues website:

Many thanks to Sandy Neidert, Senior Court Operations Consultant, for providing the information for this article.