LUBBOCK – The traditional courtroom environment can be stifling and overwhelming, with a robed judge looming overhead, an armed bailiff standing at-the-ready, and strict rules about when to speak and even how to dress. For youth in the foster care system, court hearings play a huge role in the progress of their case, from accessing the status of their education to taking stock of their quality of life in their foster home or shelter. Yet, many youth shy away from these hearings because it can be uncomfortable and nerve-wracking.
BCFS Health and Human Services’ Lubbock Transition Center, which serves youth in foster care and others experiencing challenging situations, teamed up with local Judge Kevin Hart to ensure that foster youth participate in these crucial hearings, feel truly heard, and receive all the support and services built into the foster care system.
Judge Hart was part of the core group of community partners brought in by BCFS Health and Human Services to help form the transition center in 2011. Shortly after the center opened, Judge Hart approached the federally-funded Court Improvement Project to see if they could hold court at the transition center rather than the courthouse so youth would feel comfortable enough to speak freely about their case. The novel idea was immediately embraced by BCFS Health and Human Services’ Director Kami Jackson, who says this was something no other organization in Texas was doing and had great potential to encourage youth in foster care to feel more in control of what was happening in their lives.
“When youth feel supported and comfortable, they’re more open to speak up if they are missing something, if they haven’t been able to visit their siblings, or if there’s something affecting their success in school or at home,” says Jackson. “We make sure the youth know about and prepare for their hearing. Obviously, attendance is key, so we even offer transportation to and from the center if necessary.”
At the courthouse, youth have to ask permission to speak, aren’t allowed have a drink or leave their sunglasses on their head. The whole atmosphere makes them want to get out of there as fast as possible, according to Jackson.
“Even though the kids aren’t in trouble, that’s the feeling they get when they hear the word ‘hearing.’ Here at the transition center, we sit at a big table, talk conversationally, and have food and candy on the table; whatevermakes them comfortable,” says Jackson.
During hearings at BCFS Health and Human Services’ transition center, youth are asked several questions to help access their current status and future. Does the youth have everything they need; Are they happy with their placement in a foster home, shelter or residential treatment center; Do they want to be adopted; Do they want their parents’ rights terminated; How are they enjoying school; What are their grades like; What medications are they on and are they helping; Do they want to see a counselor or a doctor? The discussions sparked from these questions help ensure the youth is safe and receiving the right programs and services.
“Most youth are already accessing services at the transition center, so our case managers and other staff attend their hearing so they feel like there’s someone on their side,” says Jackson. “When youth come in for court that we don’t know, they take a court-ordered tour of the transition center and learn everything we can do for them. So if they run away, are reunited with their family, or get adopted, they know the center is here to help them.”
According to surveys, every youth who has participated has given 100% positive feedback about holding court at the center rather than the courthouse. So it’s no surprise the court program has grown exponentially since its inception. Originally, Judge Hart held court at the center a half-day each month. Six months later it grew to a full day, and now two days per month with Judge Kara Darnell also seeing youth at the center as of January. Today, about 46 youth are seen each month for court at the transition center.
Judge Hart explains that putting the youth in an overwhelming environment where they don’t feel like they can speak freely, makes them feel more like spectators than participants in their own life.
“Many times we’re focusing on things that are important for the youth that they don’t see as important at the moment,” says Judge Hart. “In a young woman’s hearing recently, we were discussing her education, where she could live, and mapping out her future, but the most important thing to her at that moment was, would she be able to get a prom dress! The same day, a young man was wondering if he’d be able to get a senior ring. Holding court at the center helps us to address those issues that would otherwise be buried in a court proceeding, and helps us remember what it’s like to be 17 or 18 again.”
Judge Hart says he’s inspired by the youth who are willing to embrace the help offered to them, particularly those who want to pursue education or a vocational training program.
“I used to see more youth whose biggest motivation was to get out of foster care,” says Judge Hart. “But now I’m seeing more who want to stay in care until they accomplish their bigger goals and can leave better equipped to take care of themselves. We’ve had several cases where kids just needed a little push or an encouraging word from someone to decide to pursue college.”
Another benefit of holding court at the center, according to Judge Hart, is the unique collaboration of everyone who plays a part in the youth’s care, including education specialists, aftercare coordinators, case workers, supervisors and foster parents.
“When we all sit around the table together we can brainstorm and get creative, which doesn’t happen in a courtroom setting. In fact, recently we held a hearing for a young lady with moderate intellectual disabilities who’ll require long-term care. We were discussing her needs and someone brought up the idea that she should apply to the Make A Wish Foundation. Someone in the group called, she was accepted, and they are planning a trip to Disneyland!”
Jackson and Judge Hart agree, if the youth feel like they’ve played a part in developing the plan for their lives, rather than someone telling them what they’re going to do, they take ownership of that plan and are more likely to succeed.
For more information about BCFS Health and Human Services’ Lubbock Transition Center, visit www.DiscoverBCFS.net/Lubbock. For information on how to support the work of the transition center by donating, contact Kathleen Maxwell-Rambie at (806) 792-0526 or send checks to 125 Chicago Avenue, Lubbock, Texas 79416.