Overloaded courts, insufficient services part of problem
By Susan Shepard
Children are languishing in temporary foster care due to overloaded family courts and a lack of services, according to a national survey of judges who hear child abuse and neglect cases.
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn on Friday called for sweeping reform of Texas’ foster-care system, and Gov. Rick Perry has called for an investigation into the state’s Child Protective Services department.
The survey was administered this spring by Fostering Results, a foster-care public education project of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in partnership with the National Center for State Courts and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
In Texas, only half of the 125 judges who responded to the survey said they received training in child welfare before hearing cases. Scott McCown, a retired state district judge and executive director of the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, said training is critical.
“It’s not so much figuring out whether there’s been abuse or neglect,” McCown said. “What’s different in these cases is figuring out how you help and how you structure services so that you can get children back to families, where they can live safely.”
The study found that the time available to judges to hear child welfare cases is inadequate. Fifty percent of the Texas judges who have more than a quarter of their docket composed of child welfare cases said their dockets were overcrowded. McCown said lack of time was a problem when he was a judge.
“I wished I had more time per case. I think that’s a serious problem in our urban areas. We’re making decisions in minutes that we should be making in hours,” he said.
One positive aspect of Texas’ court systems, McCown said, are cluster courts – child welfare courts that cover rural counties. In a cluster court, judges are responsible for hearing all child welfare cases in their circuits.