Courts hold great authority in the child welfare system. They navigate and oversee the welfare of children within the system, as well as govern the professionals that work towards reunification. Despite the substantial role of court/legal stakeholders, little is known about parents’ and professionals’ perceptions of the court/legal system as well as their experience under the oversight of the court. This study’s primary objective was to explore parents’ and professionals’ perceptions of court/legal practices and examine whether they differ by demographic or other characteristics.
Using a cross-sectional design, data were collected from parents (N=305) and professionals (N=238). Parents were recruited statewide from foster care agencies and asked to complete a 15-20 minute survey. Using a 5-point scale, parents indicated level of agreement with 17 statements (e.g., My attorney involves me in decisions about my case; The judge asks me whether I have questions or want to share any comments). Professionals were recruited statewide by email and asked to complete a 20-30 minute online survey. Professionals rated the influence and benefits of court/legal stakeholders on a 5-point scale, considering judges, prosecutors, parent attorneys, guardian-ad-litems, court service officers, and court-appointed special advocates (CASAs). Data were analyzed with ANOVA, comparing mean scores of court/legal practices in relation to parents’ demographic and case characteristics and professionals’ demographic and job position characteristics. Statistical significance was indicated by p<.05 and effect sizes were observed.
Findings on parents’ ratings of court/legal stakeholders indicated that, other than age and geographic region, most parent demographic characteristics were not significant. On nearly all items, younger parents rated attorney/judicial behaviors higher than older parents. Analyses also showed significant differences by geographic region with one region scoring worse across 6 of 17 items. No differences were observed for parents’ relationship to the child or amount of time child(ren) were in foster care. Professionals’ ratings on influence and benefits were similar and can be summarized with rank-ordering of court/legal stakeholders: judges scored highest followed by district attorneys, guardian-ad-litems, parent attorneys, court service officers, and CASAs. Both influence and benefit of court/legal stakeholder were associated with professionals’ organization (public vs. private) and level of position (frontline, supervisor, or manager/administrator). Overall, professionals in public agencies and frontline positions rated court/legal stakeholders’ having higher influence and benefits.
In sum, parent age and geographic region were related to parental perceptions of court/legal practices. Younger parents viewed court/legal stakeholders more favorably than older parents. Also, analyses of regions revealed significant differences in parents’ perceptions by specific areas of the state. If parental perception of court/legal practices hold, one important implication may be the need for cross-jurisdiction training to improve consistency in parents’ interactions with court/legal stakeholders. Additionally, results on professionals’ views on the influence and benefits of court/legal systems may suggest more work is needed to coordinate and build relationships between public and private agencies. Implications for practice and future research will be discussed.