Unified Courts in Child Abuse and Neglect Proceedings

By Laurie Culkin, CFCC Student Fellow 2015-2016

Over the summer, I had the privilege of working for attorneys who represent children in child abuse and neglect (Children in Need of Assistance -CINA) proceedings. The juvenile court in Baltimore City aims to keep each child in front of the same judge for all of their court proceedings throughout the time they are in the care of the Department of Social Services. The intention of this process is for the children to find some consistency within the system and for one judge to develop a helping relationship with the child and their family. It was fascinating to see the relationship that developed among the children, their families, and the home court judge and the interaction the parties had with court. Overall, children who had been in front of the same judge were respectful when addressing the court and seemed to value the judge’s opinion of their progress. In turn, families felt accountable to the judge to take the steps needed to get their children back. The environment felt collaborative, not adversarial.

Under Maryland Rule 16-204, each county that has more than seven resident circuit court judges shall have a family division of the Circuit Court. As a response, Baltimore City created a family division, and specifically, a separate docket for juvenile matters, as those are heard in a different courthouse. Baltimore City enacted a “Model Court” system in its juvenile docket that practices a one-family, one-judge policy[1] for children in the custody of the Department of Social Services.

The University of Baltimore School of Law Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts supports a Unified Family Court approach because it is a system that attempts to address the problems that families in crisis face which lead them to working with DSS.[2] These issues include poverty, substance abuse, and emotional trauma, to name a few. The Unified Family Court model believes that through helping families as a whole, they better serve the children who have come into care. The judge works with and gets to know not only the child in CINA proceedings, but the family, as well, with the hopes of familial reunification as the long-term plan.

It was truly inspiring to see this type of Unified Family Court in action firsthand. The court, using a holistic approach, works with families to address not only the child’s needs, but the family’s needs. Using a method aimed at rehabilitation instead of punishment, a Unified Family Court can be a mechanism to effectuate positive change in a child’s life and also a mechanism for positive change within the larger community.

[1] http://www.baltocts.state.md.us/juvenile/message.htm

[2] http://law.ubalt.edu/centers/cfcc/

5 thoughts on “Unified Courts in Child Abuse and Neglect Proceedings

  1. Laurie,

    I see that you have some actually first hand experience with this subject. As an individual who does not, I am curious in your experience with the CINA department if you have ever observed any negative outcomes associated with Unified Courts?
    I can understand and even rationally agree with the concept of Unified Courts, however that does not mean I don’t see a number of potential issues with their implementation. I am concerned about the possible judicial biases that can accompany a one-judge-one-case situation. Being involved in the CINA department, I am assuming your experience involved observing the representation of the children in need. Though I am curious if you have ever encountered any judicial animosity towards the parents involved in these situations. Unfortunately, I can see some judges tire of re-offending parents in some of these situations due to the Unified Court Model. Through my limited experience with the judicial system I have observed a lack of enthusiasm by a number of judges when it comes to family issues.

  2. Laurie,

    I really enjoyed your article! This summer I was also an intern for BCDSS CINA department. I had a great experience but like “Kpotts77” I am concerned about the possible biases that occur within a one-judge-one-case situation. During the end of my internship I was starting to realize that magistrates were so familiar with cases, that they ruled based on prior decisions and parent’s history rather than the current facts, reasonable efforts and the aim of reunification. My question is whether you saw any judicial biases during your internship experience?


  3. Like Kelsie, I understand the benefits of the one-family-one-judge model, but I am skeptical that it creates a bias that is difficult, if not impossible, to overcome for parents. It’s not that I distrust the ability of our judicial leaders to be neutral, but I recognize that, ultimately, they’re human too – susceptible to the same sort of biases that we all can fall victim to.

    Representing parents in the child welfare system, I found that the power imbalance between the awesome power of the state levied against predominantly low-income, minority parents is a big enough hurdle in the courtroom – particularly in light of the intractable barriers to reunification and the ways in which the child welfare system equates poverty with neglect – without subjecting parents to more potential biases.

    Appearing before three different judges and four different magistrates in three different Rhode Island counties this summer, I found that it was rare that these fact-finders didn’t harp on earlier perceived issues that sometimes even the department’s social workers had agreed were no longer barriers to reunification.

    I personally saw a child taken from his crying father’s arms in the courtroom after the judge, acting in sua sponte, ordered immediate removal when neither the child advocate nor the department sought removal. What was the judge’s rationale for the “drastic” state action that inherently inflicts trauma to families? The child’s mother used marijuana, which violated this judge’s previous court order. This despite that the mother had, in the interim, secured a marijuana card, which allowed her to use the substance for medicinal purposes because she had been suffering from chronic back pain. Neither the family educational specialist nor the mental health counselor said that this mother’s medicinal use of marijuana placed the child in danger. And the caseworker’s letter to the court did not establish any nexus between the mother’s drug use and risk of imminent harm to the child. It was obvious to me that, in this instance, the one-family-one-judge model betrayed this family.

    I can also personally attest to seeing how one parent, on her second go-around in the child welfare system, was treated by the same judge she had appeared before (and was in the process of appealing to the Supreme Court) on a petition for a different child. A public defender attempted to make a pitch to remove the parents’ case to drug court, but was cut off and shut down almost instantly in a way unbecoming of her general demeanor. I can’t really describe it, but it was clear that this judge had the other case in the forefront of her mind, and that really colored her ability to hear the parties, whom may have very well changed drastically since that time. Our judicial system certainly has to operate on the presumption that people can change because that’s sort of the premise of rehabilitation.

    And I completely agree that it becomes so easy for judges in child welfare cases to revert back to a parent’s history, which we know is generally a narrative created by the child welfare agency. As the Supreme Court noted in Santosky v. Kramer, the state’s awesome power to “shape the historical events” of a case “almost inevitably dwarfs the parents’ ability to mount a defense.”

  4. Great post, Laurie!

    I see the great value in having a Unified Court System in child abuse and neglect cases. Without such approach, a judge may lack the knowledge necessary to help families as they need to be helped. Often times, it takes a while for a person to open up about their life. Even the most comforting people may have a hard time developing a rapport with someone when they only have a short period to do so. This is only heightened when an individual feels as though they are in a position to be scrutinized.
    Personally, I have seen the effects of this type of system in the Truancy Court Program. As I volunteered at Reginald F. Lewis High School this semester, I initially saw many children who were slow to open up. In the beginning of the semester, they were quick to make excuses or hide any problems that they may be having in school. After many weeks passed, this completely changed. The children developed a relationship with each team member, and this put us in a better position to help them. Utilizing this type of approach allows the person in need to develop trust in those around them. It is crucial that the Unified Court System continues, so that more families can develop a positive relationship with those in the legal community during their unfortunate times.

  5. Thank you all for your thought provoking comments!

    To address the issue of bias touched on by Janee, Kelsie and Kayla: I didn’t see bias from the judges and magistrates towards parents during my time with CINA. However, I think that could be attributed to short period of time that I was there (4 months, or so). Perhaps with more time, I could tell the difference in how judges and magistrates interacted with certain parents. I also was observing the court proceedings from the viewpoint of the advocate for the child, not the parents, so I did not pay as much attention to courts interaction with, or disfavoring, certain parents with whom the judges have had a history with. In sum, I don’t have an answer or an opinion, but it is an interesting issue, and something I will be certain to pay more attention to going forward.

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