Abstract: Centering Youth in Their Own Dependency Court Cases: Perspectives of Judges, Legal Representatives, and Peer Advocates (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Centering Youth in Their Own Dependency Court Cases: Perspectives of Judges, Legal Representatives, and Peer Advocates

Thursday, January 12, 2023
Encanto A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Clark Peters, PhD, JD, Associate Professor, University of Missouri-Columbia, Columbia, MO
William Vesneski, JD, PhD, Lecturer, University of Washington, WA
Angelie Day, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Background and Purpose: Engaging young people in their own case planning and court activities seems sensible, if not essential for positive outcomes, but practice tends to deemphasize youth engagement in favor of bureaucratic, organizational, and professional priorities. The new federally funded Quality Improvement Center – Youth Engagement (QIC-EY) seeks to understand the topic, identify best practices, and develop trainings to better center youths in the cases putatively about their best interest.

Methods: National associations (American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, National Association of Child Advocates, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges) provided candidates of key informants that brought broad experience in dependency proceedings from across the US. Researchers selected respondents (n=8) to maximize subject matter and geographical diversity. Interviews took place in the first months of 2022 and lasted 60 to over 90 minutes and included judges, parent attorneys, child attorneys, guardians at litem, Court Appointed Special Advocates, and peer mentors. One interviewer conducted all interviews, all remotely using Zoom, which were transcribed and analyzed using NVivo, a qualitative data software package. Queries covered topics including initial engagement, in-hearing practice, how to ensure youth participation, the value of having young people present in court and engaged, the experience of conducting court activities during the pandemic, and ways to structure court to maximize engagement.

Results: Respondents emphasized the importance of youth engagement and the distributed responsibility among court personal to establish and maintain it. Transition age youth are often reluctant to trust professionals and resistant to asserting their own interests, especially when family and caretaker relationships may be affected. Their participation may also be compromised given the trauma associated with involvement in the child protective services that leads to courts having jurisdiction. Court professionals frequently must bridge differences of race, gender, sexual orientation, tribal status, and socio-economic status to successfully connect with youths. Respondents agreed that judges play a pivotal role in connecting with young people in court and setting the context for their participation in hearings, and perhaps more importantly in setting expectations for other court personnel in the degree to which they value and cultivate youth engagement. Many also highlighted the importance of “meeting young people where they are” and understanding the tension inherent in valuing engagement and honoring the prerogative of youths sometimes to detach from court activities.

Conclusion and Implications: Engaging young people in the proceedings of their court cases seems as challenging as it is recognized to be important. Developing trainings to prepare new professionals and current practitioners to emphasize youth engagement will take place in the context of the heavily bureaucratic social service and legal ecology. Practitioners and policymakers seeking change face a number of challenges including measuring the magnitude of effect on engagement itself of such efforts and calculating the short and long-term effects on the well-being of youths and their families.