Abstract: I Want My Child Back! I Want My Child: Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Providers Who Prepare Parents of Color for Family Court Appearances (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

723P I Want My Child Back! I Want My Child: Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Providers Who Prepare Parents of Color for Family Court Appearances

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 6 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Tricia Stephens, LCSW-R, PhD, Assistant Professor, Hunter College, New York, NY
Colleen Katz, PhD, Assistant Professor, Hunter College, New York, NY
Vicki Lens, PhD, Professor, Hunter College, New York, NY
Background and Purpose:Courtrooms are the domains of judges where decisions are made about child welfare (CW) involved families of color that will resonate for generations. Therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) posits that legal procedures and interactions have extra-legal effects on litigants and speaks to the value of judges who are respectful and supportive, actively engaging participants in decision-making. Despite this, there is limited research on how court-involved CW parents can best position themselves to interact with judges in meaningful and impactful ways and which also exemplify the best practices of TJ. These data are crucial, as positive engagement of this nature may improve the family court experience and increase the likelihood of timely reunification.

This study seeks to address this gap through the use of retrospective accounts of key stakeholders including CW involved parents, hereafter referred to as parents, who have reached foster care permanency and the social workers (SWs), parent advocates (PAs) and attorneys (ATTs) who advocate for them.  

Methods:Thirty providers (10 SWs, 10 PAs, 10 ATTs) from a larger study (N of 50 including parents) with at least one year of experience working with parents were recruited from legal defense agencies and parent representation organizations. Interviews elicited provider narratives regarding best practices for preparing parents for court appearances and navigating the complicated family court system. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and analyzed thematically by hand, guided by the procedures of thematic analysis and using deductive principles of qualitative analysis.   

Findings:While the providers were cognizant of the adversarial practice of speaking on behalf of parents, our analysis showed that all providers understood direct communication with judges, where parents were able to tell their stories in a compelling manner, to be a powerful step for parents in the courtroom. Providers helped translate complex legal language, while also coaching parents how to handle potential courtroom minefields. They helped parents, who were entering the court system overwhelmed and fearful, to better articulate what happened to their families. Providers, especially attorneys, individualized the courtroom experience, by getting to know and understand each judge so they could best advise parents what approach worked best. This approach was especially helpful with judges who practiced the principles of TJ and encouraged parents to speak on their own behalf.  They were able to hear a parent profess in their own voice “I want my child back. I want my child” and better able to understand a parent and family’s needs. This led to more positive outcomes for families and more positive courtroom experiences.

Conclusion and Implications:Courtroom interactions between parents and judges have the power to enhance and expedite the family court experience, however, they are most effective when (a) judges engage in TJ and (b) parents are counseled by their advocates on how and when to convey their narratives. These findings have important implications for practice, including the education and training of both family court judges/referees and direct service providers of  parents who have lost temporary custody of their children.