Over the past several weeks, the landscape of the child welfare and legal systems has shifted dramatically in response to the COVID-19 emergency. Both systems have had to expand the ways in which people participate in case planning, family visitation, and court processes to ensure continued access to justice, safety, and family connection. The ramifications of the pandemic may be felt for many years to come and in ways which are not yet evident. Although there may be some reluctance to embrace technological solutions, the potential backlog of cases needing final resolution caused by delaying court proceedings has the potential to stall or delay reunification of families and other positive permanency options for children. Many courts are conducting permanency review hearings and even bench trials via Zoom to ensure case deadlines are met. Please read on to hear about other positive developments occurring across the state even during these unprecedented times.
There are many Texas judges who are embracing technology as a tool to empower more participation in the court process, promote permanency for children in care, and prevent a backlog of cases on their docket. The sudden expansion of virtual participation in these events has also revealed that issues that have long been barriers to meaningful participation by children, youth, and parents in their case planning and review hearings may be reduced or eliminated by the use of technology. Even more promising is that technological proficiencies mastered now can be used to maintain this new level of participation even after social distancing restrictions are eased.
We invite you to join us from noon to 1 p.m. on Friday, June 5, 2020 to watch our judicially-led webcast, “Benefits of Utilizing Technology in Child Welfare Cases.”
Information about how to register and apply for MCLE is forthcoming. Further, please read on to discover a new way of managing dockets, finding an interpreter, and engaging children and families, as well as the benefits of mediation, attorney preparation, and increased frequency of family time in ways not possible before courts were able to use virtual solutions in lieu of in-person hearings.
Using Zoom to conduct hearings, and implementing new docket management procedures accordingly, can ensure that permanency for children and families is not stalled. Although the logistics of conducting proceedings in a virtual environment are very new for both lawyers and judges, these hearings present an opportunity for increased efficiency. Conducting hearings via Zoom dictates a type of docket management that is not normally required with in-person hearings. One strategy is to schedule virtual hearings to begin at a time certain and end by a time certain. Another docketing practice is to create separate Zoom invitations for each hearing rather than
a single invitation for all hearings; this avoids
participants in multiple cases waiting together for an individual case to be called.
Judges report that setting up virtual hearings takes effort and requires allotting more time than in-person hearings, but that there are many benefits to hosting remote hearings. Lawyers, caseworkers, parents, caregivers, and others are better able to predict their availability and appear on time. Greater clarity around when each case will be heard also gives attorneys the time and focus to prepare for that particular case rather than shuffling between cases and often between court buildings or jurisdictions. Caseworkers are not spending hours at the courthouse waiting for a case to be called. Parents and children may also have a better court experience given the dedicated court time.
As Judge Melissa DeGerolami, Associate Judge of the Child Protection Court of South Central Texas, can attest,
“As a judge serving rural jurisdictions with limited court space in many counties, my docket has always been subject to courtroom availability. This has often resulted in delays for settings which can impact permanency for children and families. Zoom hearings provide the freedom to set hearings much more expeditiously and allows my court to be more immediately responsive to issues as they arise. I am also able to designate individual settings for cases which allows parties to have more certainty about their availability and has resulted in broader participation by parents, caregivers, and children in the court process.”
Access to Interpreters
It is often a challenge for courts to locate interpreters to translate courtroom discussions for parents. Many jurisdictions lack access to a robust cadre of qualified interpreters and this can interfere with parent engagement and court efficiency. Through the use of Zoom technology, parents, lawyers, and courts can reap the benefits of having an interpreter feature. For many languages, the Zoom technology allows for a separate interpreter channel to be accessed in order to enhance simultaneous interpretation thereby speeding up the court hearing.
Both the availability of the interpreters employed by the Office of Court Administration and the length of time the interpreters can be used has increased. Detailed instructions about how to utilize the Zoom Interpreter can be accessed by linking here:
Zoom Interpreter Feature
As Judge Darlene Byrne, District Judge in Travis County, observed,
“The docket I preside over often involves families who speak different languages from English and Spanish. Now with the use of Zoom technology for Court hearings, locating a qualified interpreter who speaks Pashtu, Farsi, Vietnamese, and even French, has become easier. My ability to bring such interpreters into the virtual courtroom now expands my reach far beyond the borders of Travis County.”
Parent and Child Engagement
At the core of a child welfare case is engaging children and families to address the underlying challenges in their lives and creating an environment where children can live safely with their family. For many years, the lack of transportation to court, to visits, to therapy, and to medical appointments has presented significant barriers for children, parents, and caregivers. Technology may offer an alternative for parents and relatives who often face other significant challenges to participating personally in child welfare proceedings such as taking a day off from work and arranging childcare. The availability of virtual hearings can make courts more accessible to both children and families, thereby leading to improved child and family engagement in the court process.
As Judge Thomas Stuckey, Associate Judge of the Centex Child Protection Court South, observed,
“Parents have been able to participate in hearings during their work hours and from out of state, even from as far away as California; all of these appearances would not have been possible but for the virtual nature of their hearings. Also, I have been able to use the breakout room function on Zoom to speak to children placed at Residential Treatment Centers (RTCs) and other facilities too far away to facilitate travel to court for in-person hearings
Mediation can be an effective tool for resolving CPS cases that is already utilized by many courts across Texas, but not every jurisdiction has access to experienced and effective mediators for CPS cases. However, the transition to virtual mediation necessitated by the pandemic may actually increase access to mediation services for jurisdictions looking to implement or expand a mediation program as the overhead cost of mediation is reduced in a virtual setting and the barriers of geography and travel are virtually eliminated. The Children’s Commission has been working to identify experienced CPS mediators who are willing and able to provide virtual mediation services across jurisdictions. If your jurisdiction is interested in implementing or expanding a mediation program, please contact the Children’s Commission at
Judges and attorneys have reported improved attorney preparation for court proceedings. Negotiating a case in the courthouse hallway while awaiting the hearing is no longer an option, so additional and early preparation is key to ensuring attorneys and clients are on the same page in terms of information, evidence, and legal position. Attorneys are becoming adept at navigating the technology, mastering how to enter evidence, and conducting caucuses with clients during the hearing. Virtual hearings will likely to be a tool utilized by Texas courts in the future, and attorneys who are familiar with processes, technology, and communication features will enable clients to experience meaningful and engaging hearings where all parties feel heard.
Increased Frequency of Family Time
While the inability for children and parents to visit in person is extremely challenging, it is encouraging that the frequency of virtual family time has increased in many areas of the state. Numerous studies have shown that frequent and regular contact supports stronger bonds between children and their parents and can increase the possibility of successful reunification. Family time can provide emotional support for children as they navigate social isolation and changes in their school routine during this time of social distancing. Virtual visits can bridge long distances and although they are no replacement for in-person contact, efforts allowing virtual visits that are appropriate and in the best interest of the child can benefit children and families until in-person visits become safe again. Several judges have issued a variety of standing orders allowing frequent virtual visitation. When social distancing requirements subside, judges may want to consider continuing to authorize virtual visits as a supplement to in-person visits to allow more frequency of contact than might be possible with in-person visitation alone.
As Judge Carlos Villalon, Associate Judge of the Child Protection Court Rio Grande Valley West, stated,
“The greatest lesson that this pandemic has given our country is the realization that family separation, isolation, and loss are truly traumatic and emotionally challenging experiences. And yet somehow, WE have found ways to keep connected with our own family by video or phone. The child welfare world is no exception and the notion that family time can only occur once a month, once a week, or even twice a week is no longer an acceptable standard when we are currently able to conduct virtual and phone visits to ”supplement” in-person visitation and keep parent and child connected. There is no going back.”