Abstract: The Effects of Child Participation in Dependency Court Proceedings: A Systematic Review (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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The Effects of Child Participation in Dependency Court Proceedings: A Systematic Review

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Daniel Gibbs, MSW, Doctoral student, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill
Terence Johnson, MS, Doctoral Student, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Alexandria Forte, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC
Hayden Dawes, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of North Carolina At Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Background and Purpose: In recent decades, policymakers and practitioners have sought to facilitate healthy child participation in child welfare court hearings. Many of these efforts have been informed by legal arguments and regulatory requirements rather than empirical evidence, leading to debate and confusion among child welfare professionals regarding the potential value for both youth and the court systems involved. Accordingly, this systematic review aims to (1) synthesize and evaluate the empirical evidence examining the effects of child participation in dependency court proceedings and (2) identify the participatory practices found to be most effective in promoting positive outcomes, in order to inform ongoing policy and practice efforts in this area.

Methods: A protocol containing search strategies and inclusion criteria was prepared in advance according to the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines and recommendations for systematic reviews (Moher, Liberati, Tetzlaff, & Altman, 2009). In consultation with a social science librarian, searches were performed in the following databases on February 28th and 29th, 2020: Sociological Abstracts, Social Services Abstracts, APA PsycInfo, HeinOnline, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, and Scopus. These results were supplemented with internet searches and reference harvesting from the included studies to ensure maximum coverage and the inclusion of gray literature. A two-stage screening process based on a priori inclusion criteria was then used to screen the 2383 identified studies. Studies examining dependency court contexts, focusing on child participation and attendance, and published in English in or after the year 2000 were included. The resulting 10 studies were evaluated for risk of bias using the Mixed Methods Appraisal Tool (MMAT) and were synthesized conceptually by the types of outcomes assessed.

Results: Although the included studies possessed several methodological limitations and risks of biases, key findings suggest that participation may be associated with improved system perceptions for youth, feelings of youth empowerment and voice, and improved judicial decision-making. Although children’s anxiety and emotional distress was generally found to be low, participation may lead to other harms, including missed school days, losses of privacy, and burdens on court resources. Allowing younger children the opportunity to participate in hearings, preparing youth in advance regarding the court process, and implementing child-friendly engagement strategies may increase the effectiveness of youth participation initiatives.

Conclusions and Implications: The benefits and potential harms identified by this review reflect both the potential value and inherent complexity of facilitating youth voice in court contexts, but findings from several of the included studies also capture important aspects of effective participation that can inform future efforts in this area. Ultimately, both the strengths and limitations of the extant research in this area point to the need for future empirical investigation and intervention development to improve the way that social work and legal professionals structure youths’ pivotal early experiences with the justice system.