How is the Court System Affected by a Pandemic?

family court

The Coronavirus pandemic continues to impact children and families in the child welfare system in numerous ways from initial reporting, parent or sibling visits and even the court system.

With schools being closed, many children are not only at risk of further abuse or neglect, but they’re also more isolated from safe adults who can help them, such as teachers and school nurses.

For children who desperately need and crave structure, their lives are thrown into chaos as restrictions based on the pandemic increasingly change their daily routines and limit interactions.

Social distancing protocols and stay-at-home orders make visits with social workers, siblings, and biological parents more difficult.

Those protocols and orders have also affected the Dependency Court System in ways that negatively impact children and families.

Dependency courts are home to hearings in which children are ordered detained and placed into foster care. They’re also home to subsequent hearings related to foster care and adoption. In Dependency Court, judges order children to be returned to their biological families through reunification, or order children to remain in foster care for an extended period of time while their parents continue to work on their case plans. In Dependency Court, judges terminate parental rights when parents are unable to comply with their case plans, freeing children for adoption into new, permanent families. Adoptions are often finalized in Dependency Court as well.

Dependency Court System

With COVID-19 pandemic spreading across the United States, many Dependency Courts have had to shut their doors, postpone all but the most crucial hearings, conduct hearings by video, and more. As a result, many foster care cases are put on hold. This means that parents who were on track to reunify may suddenly find themselves forced to endure weeks, maybe months before they’re able to reunify with their children.

Children expecting to go home may suffer further trauma if told they must wait due to one more factor out of their control.

Children awaiting adoption may have to wait indefinitely for the permanency they need and deserve.

Even if live hearings do occur, social distancing protocols might limit the number of hearings, which can create a backlog of cases once courts eventually reopen.

As the Coronavirus pandemic worsened, several child welfare advocacy organizations were quick to step up and issue a joint statement aimed at Dependency Court officials, saying, in part, that it is “incumbent upon courts and legal professionals to critically assess and safeguard the needs and rights of every young person and family member experiencing dependency court involvement.” They added that “reactive, sweeping policies” should be avoided and urged “thoughtful consideration of each child’s and each family’s individual circumstances” and promotion of “decisions based on current information, informed by medical expertise, and anchored in due process values.”

conference call to discuss court case

Advocating for Collaboration

The Administration for Children and Families’ Children’s Bureau (CB) has urged courts and agencies to work together to make sure required proceedings continue, saying that these proceedings are “critical to ensuring the safety, permanency, and well-being of children and youth…”

CB has asked courts to use the State Court Improvement Program (CIP) and available funds to help them best respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying, “CB believes continued judicial oversight of child dependency matters is critical during the pandemic.” To that end, CIP is helping by “purchasing technology to allow hearings to continue remotely”, “working to develop protocols for remote hearings”, “providing remote training to judges, court administrators and clerks” (as well as to attorneys and agencies), and more. The goal is to help judges and courts “continue to provide statutorily required oversight in ways consistent with public health mandates.”

Dependency Court System Taking Action

Thankfully, courts across the country are making the adjustments they need to try to ensure children and families are not only safe but receiving due process. There are reports of hearings being held telephonically or via video, including adoption finalizations. Filings are being taken electronically. These measures and others will no doubt alleviate some, but not all, of the consequences resulting from the virus.

Please pray that our child welfare officials, including those who work in the dependency court system, will have the wisdom and creativity needed to keep cases moving forward as they’re able. Pray that children and families will not lose hope as hearings get postponed and cases slow down. Pray that children who are awaiting permanency through adoption or successful family reunification will get that much-needed permanency in a timely and safe manner. Pray that families attempting to reunify with their children will not lose heart, and will continue to work their case plans during these uncertain times. Pray that God will give our nation’s health care and government officials wisdom in tackling this pandemic and that children’s lives will not be put on hold forever, that they and their families will be able to move forward soon and find the healing they desperately need.

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