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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6Turning Crisis Into Opportunity: Virtual Summit on Racial Justice in Child Welfare and the Courts

Written by Chris Wu, principal court management consultant, National Center for State Courts*

In the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, our nation is currently engaged in a crucial dialogue on the meaning of racial justice. The implications for the child welfare system, including the courts, are profound. The "rescue" mentality of the past resulted in gross inequities. Striving for racial equity must be a primary goal for all of us in the judicial and child welfare system,

The modern history of the court's oversight responsibilities in child welfare dates back to the passage of The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-272). The act required courts to determine whether child welfare agencies made "reasonable efforts" to (1) prevent or eliminate the need for removal of children into foster care; and (2) to reunify children with their parents if removal was necessary. In recognition of the courts' central role in the child welfare system, Congress created the Court Improvement Program (CIP), which provides grants to the highest court in each state (and now to tribes that qualify) to improve juvenile dependency courts and encourage the courts to work collaboratively with child welfare agencies and other stakeholders. CIP remains one of the only sources of direct federal funding to the state courts.

In 2004, the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care issued recommendations on two major areas: federal child welfare finance reform and improving the court process for families and children. As the Commission noted, "No child enters or leaves foster care without the approval of the court." One of the Commission's recommendations was that every state develop its own multidisciplinary commission on child welfare, ideally led by the Chief Justice and Director of Child Welfare. In order to promote judicial leadership and facilitate this collaboration, a series of national summit meetings took place over the next 5 years. Nearly every state sent multidisciplinary teams to the summits, many led by their chief justice. The Pew Commission report and subsequent national summits put a spotlight on the role of the courts in child welfare. Several states developed the major state-level infrastructure called for by the Pew Commission, such as the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care, the Texas Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth & Families, and the Minnesota Children's Justice Initiative, among others.

In September 2019, the time was right for a Fourth National Judicial Leadership Summit, which took place in Minneapolis, MN. The summit was convened by the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators. Teams from almost every state and, this time, several tribes, heard inspiring presentations and collaborated on plans to improve judicial leadership, access to justice, legal representation, and prevention services to safely reduce the need for foster care.

It seems like (and, in many ways, is) a different world since the summit just a few months ago. Little did we know then that Minneapolis would become the focus of attention for the whole country following the killing of George Floyd. The national dialogue on racial justice has had a significant impact on state courts. Many courts took the extraordinary step of issuing public statements on this important topic.  Numerous editorials in recent weeks have made the connection from the Black Lives Matter movement to racial equity in child welfare. Decades of work to address racial injustice in child welfare has left us with much work still to be done. Variations on the phrase, "defund child welfare" are becoming more prominent.

In response to these dramatic developments amid the disruption in court and child welfare operations caused by the pandemic, the summit partners recalled participants to a virtual summit meeting that took place on August 10-11, 2020, "Ensuring Justice in Child Welfare." Teams of judges, court administrators, child welfare officials, attorneys, and other stakeholders from every state; three U.S. territories; and six tribes attended the event. Many teams were led by the state chief justice or other Supreme Court justice. Due to the virtual nature of the event, other interested stakeholders were invited to join as well. Peak attendance was almost 800 connections.

Two prominent juvenile court judges, Judge Ernestine Gray from New Orleans and Judge Hiram Puig-Logo, issued the call to action on racial justice at the outset of the summit. Highlights from the rest of the program included powerful testimony from a panel of youth and parents with lived experience in the child welfare system. Participants also heard "field example" presentations on practices that made a difference in their communities—judicially led collaboration to reduce racial disparities in Travis County, TX, and high-quality, preventive legal services for families in King County, WA.

Another important presentation highlighted an innovative collaborative approach to a federal intervention already familiar to child welfare. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed in 1978 to address many years of policies and practices that removed Indian children from their homes and communities and placed them in non-Indian foster homes, orphanages, and other institutions. Many children did not survive the isolation from family and tribe. Forty-two years later, effective implementation of ICWA still has far to go in many states, and its survival as law continues to be threatened by litigation. Harmony Bercier described the state/tribal partnership in North Dakota that is making a big impact on implementing the spirit and letter of ICWA. Ms. Bercier pointed out that understanding and using ICWA principles in other dependency cases would improve justice in the child welfare system. Indeed, ICWA has been called the "gold standard" for child welfare practice.

The Children's Bureau's Jerry Milner and David Kelly implored the summit teams to revisit their reform plans with a racial justice lens as they closed out each day with powerful remarks on the summit themes. Materials from the summit may be found here.

The time for this discussion at every level of our state courts and child welfare systems is now. Bold steps needed to address the racial equity crisis cannot wait for the pandemic crisis to pass. Through this virtual national summit and follow-up to come, the Conference of Chief Justices, the Conference of State Court Administrators, and their partners ask all of us to use the lessons from these crises to envision a more equitable child welfare system and redefine the role of the courts to prevent the need for foster care and pursue racial justice for families.

*The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Center for State Courts.