Youth in Court Mythbusters

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Colorado child welfare professionals identified several concerns and barriers to youth attendance at court. The following questions and answers are reflective of these concerns.
Colorado Office of the Child's Representative
Youth in Court
Isn’t it more important for youth to attend school than court?
81% of Colorado stakeholders cited time away from school as a barrier to youth court attendance, making time away from school the most commonly recognized obstacle to participation. Other obstacles are closely related to this issue, mainly docketing practices, as courts frequently set hearings during school hours and fail to account for a youth’s schedule. While school attendance is extremely important, the empowerment and skills gained by attending court are also quite beneficial, as shown by current research.
a) Set hearings outside of school hours whenever possible b) Follow time specific docketing practices c) Give priority to cases where the youth is present d) Consider the youth’s schedule when calendaring court events e) Work with the youth’s school to ensure that court attendance does not negatively impact their education
The following practices can help facilitate youth participation in court while minimizing time away from school:
Won’t youth be exposed to sensitive information that they shouldn’t hear or be traumatized by the process?
64% of Colorado stakeholders identify exposure to negative information as a concern regarding youth in court. While this is a valid apprehension, considering that child welfare proceedings are inherently emotional and frequently adversarial, it does not need to be a barrier to participation. There is a perception that hearings can cause distress for youth by exposing them to court examinations that include questions about their parent’s behavior as well as their parents willingness to change and seek help. Youth often report, however, that they do not hear anything about their parents in court that they didn’t already know.[1]  Additionally, studies show that youth experience lower lower levels of anxiety after participating in court.[2] In Colorado, stakeholders are also concerned with the fact that hearings are open to the public, which could cause embarrassment or upset for youth who are discussing sensitive information in court.
The following practices can help reduce the possibility of trauma or exposure to inappropriate information:
A) Prepare youth for court by discussing who will be at the hearing, the purpose of the hearing, expectations and likely outcomes of the hearing, and addressing the youth’s questions before the hearing. B) Train judicial officers in strength-based communication skills to help enable them to engage with parents in a positive way. C) Request a closed courtroom if the youth is concerned with confidentiality. D) Allow in camera interviews if actual attendance will be traumatic for the youth. E) Engage former youth in helping to prepare youth for court hearings.   F) Provide a support person, such as a therapist or victim advocate, for youth in court.
“I feel like I’m doing all the work because they aren’t calling me, I have to set up meetings and take the time out of my day to do stuff to get my case in order. I have to make sure I’m taking the right classes and get everything ready for my case, and I’m doing everything for my case and then they baby me.””
- 16 year old Colorado youth in foster care
What if there is an existing protection order?
When there is an outstanding no-contact order between youth and a parent, it is possible that the youth may be scared of that parent or that the parent’s presence may cause undue influence on the youth and what he or she is willing to say in court. While this concern is legitimate, courts can make accommodations in order for youth to feel comfortable and safe attending their hearings.
A) Require the parent to leave for the portion of the hearing in which the youth is present. B) Allow youth to meet with the judge in chambers. C) Schedule a separate hearing for the parent if appropriate.
The following practices can be implemented to mitigate these concerns:
Aren’t the benefits of court attendance outweighed by the burden of transporting youth to court?
Transporting youth to court may seem like a hassle, particularly when the youth is in a placement far from the courthouse. Additionally, it may not seem worth the time and cost of transportation when hearings are brief and youth spend more time driving to the courthouse than being in court. However, the benefits of youth attendance are so valuable that professionals should strive to find solutions to transportation issues.
The following suggestions can help alleviate the burden of transportation:
A) Schedule hearings to coincide with planned visits or meetings near the courthouse that the youth will already be attending. B) Allow youth to participate in court proceedings via telephone or webcam. C) Identify a point person at the Department who is responsible for ensuring transportation. D) Include transportation to and from court as a priority with child placement agencies, and include providing transportation in foster care contracts. E) Request that the court allow CASA’s to transport youth to court.
There is a prevalent misperception that children lack good judgment and the maturity to formulate educated opinions. However, according to scholars, “Studies have shown that children as young as 6 years of age have the capability to reason and understand...This is especially true for foster children, who, by necessity, have had to grow up more quickly then [sic] their peers.”[3] Moreover, even if children are too young to accurately assess their own needs, empowerment and affirmation of “personhood” are essential to a healthy environment[4] and can be gained through court attendance.
A) Train judicial officers in strength based communication skills for engaging with youth and parents. B) Utilize the ABA Youth Empowerment – Youth in Court Benchcards to help facilitate youth engagement. C) Neutralize confusion by explaining the process to the child in an age appropriate manner before the hearing. D) Answer any questions the youth may have openly and honestly. E) Allow youth to be present for as much of the proceedings as possible. F) Debrief with the child after each hearing to explain what occurred and discuss potential next steps.
To ensure that court attendance is meaningful regardless of a youth’s age, professionals can implement the following practices:
Aren’t children too young to fully understand the impact of court and to make informed decisions?
Won’t youth become upset if the judge doesn’t order what they request?
The judge makes a decision based on what is in the best interests of the child, and may he or she may order something different than what the youth requests.  Research indicates that youth are more concerned about being heard and taken seriously than achieving their desired outcome.[5] Even if the judge does not agree with the youth’s request, the process is still very beneficial.
A) Meet with the youth before court to explain the judge’s role and responsibilities.  Help the youth understand the court’s responsibility to make decisions based on what is in the best interest of the youth. B) Encourage judges to explain the court’s order and the basis for the order, including if appropriate why the youth’s request cannot be granted. C) Debrief the youth after the hearing, answering any questions the youth might have about the court’s decision.
The following practices can help negate disappointment when the court does not order what the youth requested:
Won’t youth have negative experiences since wait times are often long and court facilities are not youth-friendly?
62% of Colorado child welfare professionals cited docketing and long waits as barriers to youth attendance in court. While this concern is tied into missing school, even if hearings are set at times that don’t interfere with school, youth may still become bored and uninterested in the process when they are forced to wait for lengthy periods of time at the courthouse. While only 19% of Colorado stakeholders cited inhospitable court facilities as a barrier to youth attendance, the fact that court houses were not designed to host youth can make the waiting period even more difficult.[6]
A) Create a youth-friendly waiting area in an extra conference or jury room or by collaborating with a local school, college, or youth program to provide art, reading, or other programs that will occupy youth while they wait. B) Provide books or toys in the courtroom. C) Give youth a memento for participation; suggestions include a stuffed animal or a pin or sticker recognizing that they spoke in court. D) Follow time certain docketing or engage in a case call to prioritize cases for the docket.
The following practices can help promote more youth-friendly court facilities:
Won’t youth feel disempowered if they do not want to attend court but we require them to attend?
Youth shouldn’t be forced to attend court.  54% of stakeholder respondents indicated that they were concerned that youth would be required to attend court hearings. Youth participation and attendance provide valuable benefits; if a youth objects to attending it is important to understand the youth’s reasoning and or fears.  Professionals may be able help alleviate the youth’s apprehension through discussion and accommodations to address the youth’s concerns.
A) Talk to the youth regarding his or her reasoning for not wanting to attend court, making sure to ask if the youth has been given enough notice and if the court hearing conflicts with something important to the youth. B) Make sure the youth understands that his or her input is important and valued by the professionals and the court. C) Help the youth prepare for court—talk to them about whether they would like to talk to the judge, what they would like to say, and how you can help them prepare for it (rehearse it, write it down, draw a picture, write a letter, etc.). D) Make any accommodations to address the youth’s concerns, such as scheduling around the youth’s schedule, requesting a closed court room, helping the youth identify a support person, or allowing the youth to attend via telephone or video conference. E) Ultimately, do not require youth to attend or participate if they truly do not want to.
The following practices can help address the youth's concerns:
Aren’t GALs and other professionals already telling the court the youth’s opinions?
Even though GALs, CASAs, and caseworkers may advise the court of a youth’s wishes these professionals bring their own biases and opinions which might color their presentation of the youth’s wishes.  The youth is in the best position to articulate his or her wishes and opinions , even when professionals are advocating for the youth.
A) Establish a presumption of youth inclusion in court hearings. B) Work with the youth to make accommodations for concerns the youth may have about attending court. C) Prepare youth for court by explaining the process, what to expect, and how to speak to the judge. D) Allow youth to express opinions and wishes, regardless of whether professionals agree with their position.
The following practices are helpful to ensure that youth are able to express their opinions in court:
1) Stephanie D. Block et al., Abused and neglected children in court: Knowledge and attitudes, CHILD ABUSE & NEGLECT, Sept. 2010 at 659, 665; Cashmore, supra note 9, at 518. 2)  See Block, supra note 16, at 663; Vicky Weisz et al., Children's participation in foster care hearings. CHILD ABUSE & NEGLECT, Apr. 2011 at 267, 269. 3) See Jenkins, supra note 7, at 173. 4) See Leigh Goodmark, From Property to Personhood, 102 W. VA. L. REV. 237, 330, 334 (1999). 5) See Cashmore, supra note 9, at 517. 6) ESTABLISHING POLICIES FOR YOUTH IN COURT – OVERCOMING COMMON CONCERN Andrea Khoury, July 2, 2008 © ABA MMVIII