Advocacy [pt 1]: All About Court Days
Foster parenting is a weird gig. Some days, we’re “regular” parents, taking kids to school and daycare and the doctor, feeding tiny people 150 times a day, and getting 10% of our to-do lists done. And some days, the “foster” part of foster parenting looms large. And that’s never more prevalent than court days.
Even in a low-drama case (I’ve heard tell of such a thing), and even when “nothing is supposed to change” on a court day, going to court is anything but normal. It’s weird and abnormal in so many ways: you’ll see people you don’t normally see or hear from, people will talk about the kids in your home as if they know them (they may or may not), big and little decisions are made, you might need to correct bad information or advocate for something for your kids, and there are all kinds of formalities to observe. It can feel like everything hangs in the balance on court days.
Maybe with a little insider info, we can all walk into court a little calmer, more prepared, and ready to advocate for our kiddos. Before we get started, please keep in mind that while I am A lawyer, I am not YOUR lawyer and this is not legal advise :) I’m just a gal who loves both the courtroom and kids and families in foster care. If you need specific help in your case, hire a lawyer in your area who specializes in foster care cases (I’ll write on this in the future).
Before getting to the nuts and bolts, let’s set the scene:
There are a few kinds of court hearings. Usually, there will be one hearing early on to decide if the child stays in foster care, a final hearing (or trial) to decide how the case should end (termination of parents’ rights, reunification, etc.), and several status hearings in between to check on how the child is doing, how parents are doing on services, and whether family members are approved to become caregivers. You might also have court hearings for specific requests, like if the caseworker wants to move the child to a new placement and another party contests it.
The major players in the courtroom are the parties to the case. Foster parents are not parties to the case unless they become parties to the case, which usually can’t happen until 6 or 12 months into the case, depending on your state. The parties will likely be the caseworker and the state’s attorney (who will sit at one table), and the parents and their attorneys, the child’s attorney and/or guardian ad litem, CASA (if one is appointed) (all of whom will sit at the other table). There will also be a judge, bailiff (to keep order in the courtroom), and probably a court reporter.
Foster parents often have more information about the kids and what’s going on in the case than anyone else. Unfortunately, many times foster parents aren’t called on to speak in the hearing. But if you feel that information you have would be useful for the judge to hear, such as how kids are doing in visitations or what supports the parents might benefit from, see my tips below on how to speak in court.
And now, a few tips for advocating in court for our foster kiddos:
Go to court. There is likely no better way to find out information about your kids and what’s happening in their legal case than to attend the court hearings. Even if it requires taking time off (sometimes even a whole day!), it’s very important to attend. A two-hour hearing in which the goals for the kids change, the parents disclose new information, and extended family members attend might be reported to you as “nothing new happened” after the hearing. It’s better to hear it for yourself. Also, unless the judge asks you to bring the children to court, do not ever bring kids to court (not even to the courthouse).
Court etiquette. Best to arrive to court early, ask the security staff where the courtroom is, and then find people you know outside the courtroom. Caseworkers and attorneys are likely there all day, so you should be able to find someone you know. Wear business casual (or “Sunday school”) clothes (perhaps avoid jeans just to be safe). Turn your phone off. When you enter the courtroom, sit in the first row or two of the audience section behind the little doors. When the judge enters or exits the courtroom, stand up, and stay standing until the judge says “please be seated.” If you speak to the judge, stand and remain standing, and refer to the judge as “your honor.”
Speaking in court.
The messenger: If you have something important to tell the judge, first consider if there is someone who is already speaking in court to communicate your message. For example, if you have concerns that your kids haven’t received therapy yet, tell the kids’ lawyer and ask the lawyer to share that concern with the judge. (I like to sit behind the caseworker and tap him/her if there is something I have to add, so that the caseworker can tell the judge directly. Ex: if caseworker says that parents are having supervised visits but they are actually having unsupervised, I tap the worker and remind him/her, and she can correct that information with the judge.)
Notifying the judge: If no one else will share your message (or they don’t agree with you), let that person know that you’d like to speak to the judge. Ideally, that person will tell the judge that you want to speak, and the judge will call on you.
Speaking without permission: If no one will tell the judge you want to speak, and it is CRITICAL (really, critical) that you tell the judge something, raise your hand from the audience. If the judge calls on you, stand up and say “Your honor, I am the child’s placement, and I have something to share with the court.” The judge can then invite you to speak or ask you to sit down.
Short and sweet: Prepare ahead of time to share a very short and sweet message with the court, ideally less than 2 minutes. Keep your message 100% factual. (Example: “Martin does not fall asleep until midnight after visits with parents” is factual; “Martin’s parents shouldn’t be allowed feed him Dr. Pepper and oreos at 6 pm” is opinion.)
Handouts: If you think it’s unlikely you’ll get to speak in court, consider writing a very short bullet point list of facts you want to share with the judge. Bring 10 copies to court and give one to everyone - caseworker, all attorneys, parents, and ask if you can hand one to the judge.
What is critical? When you’re first experiencing this crazy world of foster care, everything will be critical and important. That’s not untrue, but it’s a matter of perspective. We don’t have unlimited chips, and we should save our advocacy for situations that really, really require it. Only you know what’s really at stake in your kids’ cases, but here are some rules I’ve found helpful.
Something likely does not need to be shared during court if:
There is another, less dramatic way to share the information, such as with the caseworker or child’s attorney. Sharing with judge needs to be the last resort.
It reflects a difference in parenting choices or culture. The judge might not need to know that the kids were fed sugar during their visit, even if it makes your life hell for the next 12 hours. But the judge might need to know that a kiddo with asthma is being transported in a car with active smoking, if no one else seems concerned. Again, judgment calls here. But we can ask ourselves: is this just different than what I would do, or is the child really in danger?
It could be shared later. These cases are rarely short. What seems like mission critical information in month 2 might wind up not being a big deal by month 12.
Something might need to be shared in court if:
None of the other parties are taking a dangerous situation seriously.
Inaccurate information that can really hurt a child is being shared in court.
My last suggestion is to be kind to ourselves on court days. Invite your community to pray with you at the specific time you’re in court. Plan for something fun after court, no matter what the outcome.
Hope this is helpful!
Advocating kindly and repeatedly with you,