APPROACHING THE BENCH: FOSTER KIDS
COULD TAKE PART IN COURT PROCEEDINGS

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Alycia Guichard still remembers the first time she faced a judge in Brooklyn Family Court. Guichard, then 15, was entering foster care; her mother was losing parental rights. After years of bouncing between friends and relatives, Guichard said she felt tired and ready for a stable home. But the judge never asked her how she felt. The judge, she said, never asked her anything.

“I was just sitting there,” said Guichard, now 33 and teaching law at Georgetown University. “It was like I didn’t have any rights.”

In fact, young people rarely even attend hearings like that one, noted Erik Pitchal, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Family and Child Advocacy at Fordham University. While the courts profess support for youth involvement, Pitchal said, the reality is far more complicated. A child’s lawyer may be reluctant to have a client miss school, for instance, or to hear sensitive information about parents. Some attorneys feel they don’t have enough time to counsel young people through the experience. “It’s hard work to try to figure out the best approach,” said Pitchal, “but that’s not an excuse to have a knee-jerk response that children shouldn’t come at all.”

With that in mind, Pitchal’s group organized a conference at Fordham late last month, attended by more than 100 lawyers, city officials, caseworkers, and young people in the child welfare system. The starting point, he said, was a 2004 finding by the Pew Commission on Foster Care that “children and parents often lack a strong and effective voice in court decisions that affect their lives.” Pitchal hoped the conference would identify obstacles to youth involvement—along with some possible solutions.

Los Angeles, for example, has approximately 25,000 kids in foster care (compared to 17,000 in New York), and most attend their own hearings. Under California state law, any child age 5 or older has the right to be present and participate. “I think it’s difficult for judges to make decisions without seeing and hearing from the youth whose lives are at issue,” said Leslie Starr Heimov, policy director at the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles. As for attorneys, she said, “It seems very obvious to me that you do a better job if you have a client there.”

To help facilitate the process, the city sponsors a van that picks up children with court dates and transports them to a special courthouse used only for dependency hearings. While children wait to be called, they have access to fully staffed day care center complete with books, arts and crafts, computers and a Ping-Pong table.

A similar “teen center” was proposed at the Fordham conference, along with after-school court hours and a peer volunteer program. Many of the suggestions came from young people at the conference, Pitchal said, and seemed well received by key players like John Mattingly, commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services, and Ronald Richter, Mattingly’s deputy commissioner for Family Court Legal Services.

Richter said his agency was working with Family Court to limit the wait time for families and to create “teen days” for youth seeking more information about the process. Yet Richter also noted via e-mail that attending hearings can sometimes be harmful for kids or inappropriate “based on their age or capacity.”

Pitchal understands that concern but said it can also be a cop-out for adults who are uncomfortable having kids in the courtroom. There’s no reason, for instance, why young people couldn’t attend part of a hearing and then be asked to leave the room if the conversation turned to more delicate matters, he said.

Guichard, who spoke at the Fordham conference, agrees. She points out that foster kids are at higher risk for unemployment, homelessness and crime, problems that stem partly from feeling disengaged from society. “If you get involved in your court proceedings, you might start to get involved in other things,” she said. “It makes you feel a little bit more respected.”

—Cassi Feldman