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December/January 2019Vol. 19, No. 10Prevention as Our Common Goal: A Proposed Community Path to Success

Written by Judge Derek C. Swope, West Virginia Circuit Court.

As a West Virginia Circuit Court judge, my most important duty is to protect the children in our community. They are the most vulnerable, and they are our future. Societies are judged by their treatment of their weakest members, particularly their children. Given the reality of modern life, judges must rethink their approach to engagement with community members and resources. We cannot passively wait for cases to come before us; we must proactively help create and implement a system that establishes safety, permanency, and well-being for our children, in a timely manner and within the bounds of our ethical obligations as judges. For the last decade, we have effectively operated our multidisciplinary Court Improvement Program to achieve this goal.

In July, I attended the State Team Planning Meeting hosted by the Children's Bureau in Washington, DC, as chair of West Virginia's Court Improvement Program. In August, I attended the National Association of Counsel for Children's conference in San Antonio, TX. My education on the need for primary prevention in child welfare and the role of the Family First Prevention Services Act began at these meetings. I was skeptical at first, as I feared this would be another reinvention of the wheel with different terminology. However, at the Washington, DC, meeting, I was pleasantly surprised and inspired by the presentations made by teams from Colorado, Maryland, and New York. These teams had clearly anticipated and acted on the need to redesign child welfare to focus on prevention and better serving families in a coordinated way at the local level. As I listened and learned, I realized we could make this system work in West Virginia if we changed the paradigm and thought creatively. We had previously done this when we established the adult drug court and truancy court in my jurisdiction. I realized that many of the resources and partnerships necessary to create a local system were already in place because of our development of these specialty courts. During these presentations, I resource mapped the various assets we have available to establish a strong prevention approach from our current specialty court partners.

When I returned to West Virginia, our state planning team (composed of the Court Improvement Program leadership team and key leaders from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources) met to brainstorm how we could align the opportunities presented by Family First with our own resources to achieve better results for children and their families. I attended a meeting in August 2018 to design our local infrastructure. In preparation for that initial meeting with my proposed partners, I met with a West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources community service manager who has already implemented successful partnerships that can meet the mandates of Family First. She generously agreed to share her insights with us as we began our journey. With work and patience, we can create a system that will implement Family First and, to the extent possible, keep our children in family settings and out of state custody.

We hope to create a template that can be used across West Virginia as a basis for the development of local programs. Our drug courts are successful because they grew from the bottom up using our community resources and were not imposed by other levels of government. I anticipate that our Family First initiative will flourish in the same way and help support a larger commitment to prevention. Family First will succeed if states and communities recognize the opportunities it creates and use them to drive a larger vision for preventing child maltreatment. I am excited to work with Children's Bureau staff who have taken the implementation of Family First to heart and who have provided encouragement to our Court Improvement Program over many years. I look forward to sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly as we plan and implement our vision for the care of our children.