Saturday, April 24, 2010

Beyond the Bench

Last week I had the privilege of attending most of a "Beyond the Bench" conference sponsored by the Supreme Court's Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families, my first but by no means the first one conducted by the Texas Center for the Judiciary. These conferences bring together all of the people and all of the disciplines involved in conducting child abuse and neglect cases in a particular locale, in this case Harris County (Houston). The format is to watch a video that depicts the evolution of a single "CPS" case, pausing at intervals to deconstruct what has happened and, with skilled moderators, query a multidisciplinary panel about what they saw and how it would play out in their locale. So, the panel had representation from the judiciary, prosecution, law enforcement, CPS, child advocacy, counsel for the parents and children, substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, housing, workforce, education, and the parents and child. This itself was extraordinary. But the format continues with breakout sessions where each judge has assembled a multidisciplinary team of people who work in their courtroom, to troubleshoot the process and look for opportunities to improve the way the system works.

In Harris County, twelve elected judges and twelve more associate judges handle CPS cases. (Some also handle juvenile justice cases while other also handle family law cases, so this diffusion between so many judges, with many different modes of practice, is one of the issues for them to consider.) Not all those judges were present, but many were, along with an amazing cross-section of the resources and talent in the third largest city in the country. The synergy and energy that I witnessed, and the willingness to take a look at local practices and improve them, were inspiring and hopefully a harbinger of great things to come. I hope so for the children of Harris County, but also for the sake of Texas. Our foster care system is 60% funded by the federal government, and they grade us every few years by looking, in part, at Harris County as the largest jurisdction in the state, in the process known as the Child and Family Services Review or "CFSR." Texas-specific information on the CFSR is available on the CPS website, including the 2009 Final Report.

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