Thursday, January 12, 2012: 3:30 PM
Cabin John (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Background and Purpose: The juvenile dependency court plays a central role in determining the disposition and timing of children's permanency outcomes. Dependency courts are charged with reviewing placement decisions, establishing permanency plan goals, determining whether reasonable efforts are made to help parents meet those goals, and deciding whether parental rights should be terminated. Although many studies have examined the predictors of exit to permanency - and a few have examined the rates of parental rights termination and adoption finalization - the factors that affect the timing of the balance of dependency court milestones have not been rigorously examined. Nevertheless, a better understanding of the determinants of these milestones could inform efforts to improve the effectiveness of dependency courts and address disparities in the timing and disposition of permanency outcomes. The current study uses administrative data describing the dependency court histories of 16,831 children in Cook County, IL to examine the respective relations between case- and court-level characteristics and the timing and disposition of children's court outcomes. Methods: The study sample includes 16,831 children taken into protective custody in Cook County IL between 1/1/2000 and 12/31/2009. Data sources include the Cook County Juvenile Court case processing database and several IL Department of Child and Family Services' administrative databases. Multistate, multilevel discrete-time hazard models are used to compare the respective relations between child- and court-level predictors and the timing of dependency court milestones, including adjudication as a dependent, disposition and permanency plan approval, termination of parental rights, adoption finalization, and case closure. Results: Several case-level characteristics, including child race, age, type of alleged maltreatment, and parent age are found to be related to the rates of reunification and adoption. Further, the observed differences in permanency rates across case characteristics are found primarily to be a function of differences in the rates of transition between permanency plan approval (i.e., disposition) and case closure. Conversely, although court-level characteristics are found to be predictive of the milestones leading up to and including permanency plan approval, most are not found to be related to the timing of transitions occurring subsequent to permanency plan approval. Implications: The finding that case characteristics predict differences in the timing of milestones occurring subsequent to permanency plan approval suggests that progress during this stage of the permanency process may be more a function of clinical and case management processes that inform court decision-making than they are of court efficiency and operation per se. Conversely, the finding that court characteristics primarily predict differences in the timing of milestones occurring prior to permanency plan approval, suggests that progress during the early stages of dependency court cases may be primarily a reflection of differences in court efficiency and operation. Together, these findings have important implications for the nature, and potential limitation, of court improvement efforts.
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