LUBBOCK—For youth in the foster-care system, court hearings play a huge role—from assessing their educational status to evaluating their quality of life in a foster home or shelter. But many youth shy away from these hearings because they can be uncomfortable and nerve-wracking.
Traditional courtrooms can be stifling and overwhelming, with a robed judge looming overhead, an armed bailiff standing at-the-ready and strict rules about when to speak and how to dress.
The Lubbock Transition Center, a ministry of Baptist Child & Family Services that serves youth in foster care and others experiencing challenging situations, teamed up with a local judge to make sure foster youth participate in their hearings and receive all the support and services built into the foster-care system.
Judge Kevin Hart was part of a core group of community partners BCFS assembled to help form the transition center in 2011. Shortly after the center opened, Hart approached the federally funded Court Improvement Project to see if court could be held at the transition center rather than the courthouse so youth would feel comfortable to speak freely.
Feeling in control
Kami Jackson, director of BCFS Health and Human Services, embraced that novel idea, noting its potential to encourage youth in foster care to feel more in control of what was happening in their lives.
“When youth feel supported and comfortable, they’re more open to speak up if they are missing something, if they haven’t been able to visit their siblings, or if there’s something affecting their success in school or at home,” she said. “We make sure the youth know about and prepare for their hearing. Obviously, attendance is key. So, we even offer transportation to and from the center, if necessary.”
At the courthouse, youth must ask permission to speak, aren’t allowed have a drink or leave their sunglasses on their head. The atmosphere makes them want to get out as fast as possible, Jackson noted.
“Even though the kids aren’t in trouble, that’s the feeling they get when they hear the word ‘hearing.’ Here at the transition center, we sit at a big table, talk conversationally, and have food and candy on the table—whatever makes them comfortable,” she said.
During hearings at the transition center, youth are asked questions to help evaluate their status and future: “Do you have everything you need? Are you happy with your placement in a foster home, shelter or residential treatment center? Do you want to be adopted? Do you want your parents’ rights terminated? Are you enjoying school? What are your grades like? What medications are you on? Are they helping? Do you want to see a counselor or a doctor?”
The discussions the questions spark help ensure the youth is safe and receiving the right programs and services.
“Most youth are already accessing services at the transition center. So, our case managers and other staff attend their hearing so they feel like there’s someone on their side,” Jackson said.
“When youth come in for court that we don’t know, they take a court-ordered tour of the transition center and learn everything we can do for them. So, if they run away, are reunited with their family or get adopted, they know the center is here to help them.”
According to surveys, every youth who has participated has given 100 percent positive feedback about holding court at the center rather than the courthouse. So, it’s no surprise the court program has grown exponentially since its inception.
Initially, Hart held court at the center a half-day each month. Six months later, it grew to a full day, and now it is two days per month with Judge Kara Darnell also seeing youth at the center. About 46 youth participate each month in court at the transition center.
In traditional courtrooms, where youth may not feel they can speak freely, they end up feeling more like spectators rather than participants in their own lives, Hart said.
“Many times, we’re focusing on things that are important for the youth that they don’t see as important at the moment,” Hart said.
“In a young woman’s hearing recently, we were discussing her education, where she could live, and mapping out her future, but the most important thing to her at that moment was would she be able to get a prom dress. The same day, a young man was wondering if he’d be able to get a senior ring.
“Holding court at the center helps us to address those issues that would otherwise be buried in a court proceeding—and helps us remember what it’s like to be 17 or 18 again.”
Young people willing to embrace the help offered to them—particularly those who want to pursue education or a vocational training program—serve as an inspiration, he said.
“I used to see more youth whose biggest motivation was to get out of foster care,” Hart said. “But now, I’m seeing more who want to stay in care until they accomplish their bigger goals and can leave better equipped to take care of themselves. We’ve had several cases where kids just needed a little push or an encouraging word from someone to decide to pursue college.”
Another benefit of holding court at the center is the unique collaboration of everyone who plays a part in the youth’s care, including education specialists, aftercare coordinators, case workers, supervisors and foster parents, Hart added.
“When we all sit around the table together, we can brainstorm and get creative, which doesn’t happen in a courtroom setting,” he said. “In fact, recently we held a hearing for a young lady with moderate intellectual disabilities who’ll require long-term care. We were discussing her needs and someone brought up the idea that she should apply to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Someone in the group called, she was accepted, and they are planning a trip to Disneyland.”
Jackson and Hart agree: If the young people feel they’ve played a part in developing the plan for their lives, rather than someone telling them what they’re going to do, they take ownership of that plan and are more likely to succeed.