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Court Reform

Comprised of policymakers, judges, advocates, administrators, academics, foster and adoptive parents, and former foster youth, the national, non-partisan Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care was formed to develop recommendations to improve outcomes for children in the foster care system—particularly to expedite the movement of foster children into safe, permanent, nurturing families, and to prevent unnecessary placements in foster care.

In its recommendations, released in May 2004, the Commission focused on reform in two key areas that underlie many of the problems in child welfare today: a federal financing structure that encourages over-reliance on placement of children in foster care, and a court system that lacks sufficient capacity to move children swiftly out of foster care and into permanent families.

Court Reform Recommendations

Below, we outline the Commission’s court recommendations and explain challenges to be overcome to better serve children, youth, and their families.

The court recommendations would:

  • Equip dependency courts with the tools they need to analyze caseloads, assess their performance, and identify issues in the courts and populations of children that need special attention.
  • Require and encourage collaboration between child welfare agencies and courts to serve children better.
  • Give children and parents a stronger and more effective voice in court proceedings.
  • Organize state courts to respond better to a child’s urgent need for a safe, permanent family.
  • Engage Chief Justices and other court leaders to be powerful champions for children in the dependency courts.

The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 ushered into law many of the Pew Commission’s court recommendations. For the first time, states must demonstrate “substantial, ongoing, and meaningful collaboration” between agencies and courts in their child welfare plans. Further, the Act requires applicants for federal Court Improvement Program grants to demonstrate real collaboration between the courts and the state child welfare agency.

The Deficit Reduction Act also provides $100 million over five years for two new grant programs. Through the first program, state courts can apply for grants to improve their timely and complete action on behalf of foster children through improved data collection. State high courts can also apply for funds to train judges and court personnel, as long as a portion of the grant is used for cross-training in coordination with the state child welfare agency.

Below, we outline the Pew court recommendations and related challenges:

Improve judicial decision-making and accountability by providing funding incentives to state court systems that adopt performance measures for every dependency court.

While federal IV-E funds are available for child welfare agencies to develop statewide child welfare information systems, federal dollars are not similarly available to help courts track critical information about children under the courts’ supervision.

Now that the Deficit Reduction Act (see box above) has provided some funding for court data systems, courts must use the data gathered to track performance and guide needed reform. Those courts that have had access to good data in the past have identified overlooked groups of children, demonstrated the need for additional resources or the re-deployment of existing resources, and hastened children’s movement into safe, permanent families.

Require and encourage state courts and child welfare agencies to collaborate on behalf of children in foster care.

The Deficit Reduction Act was an important step in enhancing collaboration between courts and agencies. Now much needs to be done at the state level. To guide implementation and ensure broad collaboration, the Commission calls for the development of multi-disciplinary, broad-based commissions on children in foster care, ideally convened by the state’s Chief Justice and child welfare agency director.

To help foster collaboration, states should sponsor multi-disciplinary training opportunities for legal and court personnel and child welfare agency staff. Training should include information about child development, the roles and responsibilities of the various parties, and dispute resolution techniques.

Give children and parents a strong voice in court by organizing courts to encourage such participation, expanding the Court Appointed Special Advocates program to underserved communities and populations, and supporting loan forgiveness and other efforts to attract and retain dependency law attorneys.

Children and parents involved in dependency cases are too rarely heard during court proceedings. Children and parents sometimes report infrequent or last-minute meetings with attorneys who appear unfamiliar with the details of their lives. Children are not always present in court and are often unaware that proceedings are underway. Parents report feeling marginalized during complex legal processes. Children and parents need a strong voice in court, but no consistent policy across states requires that they be present in proceedings that will forever change their lives. Further, availability and competence of legal representation for children and parents is inconsistent.

Qualified, committed representation helps ensure that children are heard in court. Expansion of the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program would enhance such representation. CASA volunteers conduct investigations and make recommendations in the child’s best interests. CASAs have time to listen to children and the adults who care for them, and make recommendations to judges.

To attract attorneys to juvenile and family law, the Pew Commission also recommends a loan forgiveness program and other demonstration projects.

Encourage state Chief Justices to create and directly oversee dedicated dependency courts, and promote judicial workload and training standards, standards of practice, and codes of judicial conduct that promote better outcomes for children involved with the dependency courts.

The judicial leadership of every state must make strengthening and supporting dependency courts a top priority. Resource allocations are made at the top levels by Chief Justices and supreme courts. Codes of judicial conduct are generally promulgated at this level—codes that can encourage or discourage problem-solving approaches. Court leadership can send a powerful message regarding the court system’s accountability for children in public custody.

Improving court performance requires leadership. Establishing an office on children within the Administrative Office of the Courts would demonstrate the importance of dependency issues and help institutionalize the court’s commitment to children.

In many jurisdictions, dependency cases are heard in courts that preside over all categories of cases—family, civil, and criminal. As a result, dependency cases do not always get the time, expertise, and degree of attention children deserve. State court leadership can address this problem by establishing courts or departments dedicated to dependency cases, enabling judges and other court staff to develop expertise and demonstrate commitment to children. The Pew Commission also recommends that judges be permitted to opt out of routine rotation and remain on the dependency bench.

Judicial leaders have recently tested best practices and explored alternatives to the adversarial model. States can advance best court practices by adopting standards for dependency court resources and workloads, instituting performance measures, and promulgating standards of practice for dependency judges.

If the Pew Commission’s recommendations were implemented, juvenile and family courts across the nation could begin to shift from an adversarial model to a problem-solving approach such as those used by drug courts.

NACAC's Family and Youth Engagement Project

Since 2005, NACAC has been proud to be a part of a team of child advocates working to raise awareness about the valuable reform recommendations made by the Pew Commission, including its court reforms. In the videos below, NACAC features the stories of former foster youth, birth parents, adoptive parents, and relative caregivers to highlight the need for reform and way in which the Pew Commission's recommendations could improve outcomes for children, youth, and families. Click here to download a copy of the video companion guide. To request a DVD and a hard copy of the guide, send an e-mail with your name and address to


Promoting Permanent Families

Expanding Adoption Assistance

Implementing Subsidized Guardianship


Increasing Funding Flexibility


Reforming the Courts





North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC)
970 Raymond Avenue, Suite 106
St. Paul, MN 55114
phone: 651-644-3036
fax: 651-644-9848