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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6Collaborating to Break Down Silos in the Justice System

Written by the Honorable Barbara Mack, board secretary, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ); and Joey Orduña Hastings, chief executive officer, NCJFCJ

The COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, and protests over the last few months have made clear how interconnected our systems are: health care, housing, employment, education, child welfare, public safety, and the courts. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted "essential workers," populations with the greatest risk of infections, and those losing their jobs and access to health care. They may appear in court in eviction, family law, child welfare, garnishment, and employment cases, among others, and are denied justice as a result of pervasive systemic inequity. Systemic inequity permeates our systems and creates unstable families. Courts have acknowledged how systems of justice have been part of that inequity, but courts alone cannot solve this systemic issue.

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and examine how to restart our judicial system, learn to adapt to new technology, and strive to remedy structural racism, we must look beyond programmatic goals. Fundamentally, people need to be safe and healthy and feel connected, supported, engaged, and included in decisions that affect them. It's time to focus on how to keep people and communities healthy. We can take our long-standing protective factors framework to a broader, community-wide level.

In Enhanced Resource Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Abuse and Neglect Cases, by NCJFCJ, one principle is the need to engage, empower, and hear the voices of children and families in family court proceedings. Remote court hearings have shown that we can help meet those expectations. Remote hearings may prevent a parent from missing work, driving long distances, or paying for parking, and children don't have to miss school. They allow incarcerated parents to participate and for judges to facilitate hearings for parties and service providers in rural and tribal areas. However, remote court proceedings have exposed our broad digital divide, uncovering disparities among court systems even within a state and among people who do not have access to technology. These hearings can make it difficult for judges to build rapport with parents for cases with multiple interpreters, make visitation challenging, and may interfere with confidential attorney-client communications. We have learned that geography does not have to be a barrier to court access and should continue to ease the burdens for parties, service providers, and case workers, while working to solve problems and prevent disparate access to justice.

How do we, as a judicial system and a nation, move forward? We need to fundamentally change the way we look at the problem. For example, most data collection focuses on people trying to navigate adversity. That makes it appear that people, not systems, are broken. Can we collect data that examine structural barriers people have overcome or not and rebuild to address the barriers? How do we ensure that our decision-making tools are not based on data that reflect bias?

How do we create community-based support systems to help people stay out of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and deal with trauma? How do we get systems to collaborate on finding and implementing solutions? How do we find and expand on what's working in communities? How do we create strong social networks that support families in addressing their needs and achieving their goals? How do we redirect resources to help families stay together (e.g., workforce training, housing, education, child care, and transportation)?

No single system can answer all of these questions. Courts are a separate branch of government but are a fundamental part of every community. Judicial leadership can play a part in re-envisioning the system. Siloed responses to complex problems do not work. To quote an NCJFCJ past president, "families don't work in silos, systems do." The courts, education, public health, law enforcement, social services, housing, child welfare, federal, and local government agencies and systems must all work together.

To emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic as a healthier nation and to instill equity at all levels, the courts and others must engage in cross-sector collaboration focused on healthy families, communities, and systems that hear the voices of children and families.