Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Kids in Court

I notice that Senator Whitmire has a Criminal Justice committee hearing scheduled for May 13, partly to discuss their interim charge #10 on "facilitating the fair and accurate courtroom testimony of children and reducing the trauma associated with testifying, particularly for children who are victims of sexual abuse." But my current interest in children in court is more on the civil side, meaning child abuse and neglect or "CPS" cases, and is animated by the Beyond the Bench conference for Houston that I recently described. There I learned of a widespread consensus in Houston against bringing children to court in CPS cases; in fact the Family Division of the District Courts has a local rule stating:

"3.5 Interview of Child / Child's Testimony. In all cases in which the court deems testimony of a child to be necessary or required by statute, the attorney wishing to have the child interviewed shall arrange a specific time through the court coordinator for the court to interview the child. No party is to bring a child to the courthouse to testify without prior arrangement pursuant to this rule, unless the child's attendance is required by court order including a writ of habeas corpus or attachment. The attorney or pro se party who is responsible for the child's attendance at court shall immediately notify the court coordinator of the child's presence in the courthouse. The child shall not be brought into the courtroom without the express consent of the judge or associate judge."

Contrast that consenus with the Texas Family Code, §263.302: “The child shall attend each permanency hearing unless the court specifically excuses the child’s attendance.” And §263.501(f) (placement review hearings) states: “The court shall consult with the child in a developmentally appropriate manner regarding the child’s permanency or transition plan, if the child is four years of age or older.”

In an article in the Texas CASA newsletter, Judge Karin Bonicoro discusses why she believes the Family Code makes the appropriate call on this issue, in spite of the difficulties of bringing children to court:

"Both the court and the child benefit from the child’s participation. As a judge, I have found that the child’s attendance and voice add an indispensable component to the hearings and my decision making process. When I am able to observe the child, I get a sense of that child’s condition and abilities (physical, intellectual, social, verbal). I sometimes see the effects of the psychotropic medications the child is prescribed, something I would miss entirely if the child was absent. In some instances this has led to orders for an independent medication review, resulting in changes in, or discontinuation of, the child’s psychotropic medications. In talking to the child, I learn their wishes regarding permanency, and their plans upon leaving care. I may learn about a previously unidentified relative or kinship placement option. The child can tell me in her own words how she feels she is doing in her placement or in school, or why she has engaged in a particular behavior. She may request services or other accommodations she thinks might benefit her. A child may request information on the location or well-being of a sibling in care, or request the opportunity to communicate with specific family members. When a youth informs me he plans to return to a particular person when he leaves care, I have the opportunity to try to have that person located and, if appropriate, included in the transition planning for the youth."

One thing that will help the children and judges in Houston is construction of a new, much more suitable courthouse for these cases, making it much more feasible and less stressful for the children to come to court. Apparently bonds have been approved by the voters, but not issued by the commissioners court.

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