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 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. 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.