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One Family, One Judge Practice Effects on Children: Permanency Outcomes on Case Closure and Beyond
Corey Shdaimah, University of Maryland, Baltimore, Maryland
Alicia Summers, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Reno, Nevada
Corey Shdaimah, University of Maryland School of Social Work; Alicia Summers, Juvenile Law Program, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Corey Shdaimah, University of Maryland School of Social Work, 525 W. Redwood St., Baltimore, MD 21201; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
KEYWORDS: adjudication, child abuse, child neglect, juvenile court process, judicial disposition
The use of the one family, one judge model of decision making in juvenile dependency and delinquency cases has been recommended as a best practice but has little empirical support. In the current study, we use a pre–post design to examine the effects of implementation of a one family, one judge model on permanency outcomes in juvenile dependency cases. After implementation of the model, juveniles were more likely to be reunited with their families through dismissal of case petitions and were more likely to be reunited in a more timely way (within 12 months of removal) than before the model was implemented. There were no differences in reentry into foster care after case closure when comparing child welfare cases prior to and after implementation of the one family, one judge model, implying that the timelier permanency outcomes did not result in detriments to safety.
In 1995, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) set out guidelines for best practices in cases of child abuse and neglect. One of the practices that has been widely adopted (although little studied) is the one family, one judge model, in which one judicial decision maker hears a case from beginning to end. According to the NCJFCJ, the one family, one judge model is preferable to standard practice because it permits judges to become “thoroughly familiar with the needs of children and families, the efforts over time made to address those needs, and the complexities of each family’s situation” (NCJFCJ, 1995, p. 19). One of the hopes for this practice is that judges familiar with the families would be able to make more informed decisions that might lead to better outcomes for families and children and “increase the quality of stakeholders’ response to family crisis” (Portune, Gatowski, & Dobbin, 2009, p. 37). The NCJFCJ promotes the one family, one judge model as a best practice in both dependency and delinquency cases (NCJFCJ, 2005). It has also been recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (Duquette & Hardin, 1999), and by the United Kingdom’s President of the Family Division of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (Wall, 2011).
Promoters of family courts, of which the one family, one judge model is an integral part, note the benefits of “greater efficiency and consonance” that judicial continuity brings (Rubin, 1998, p. 123). Families may benefit from greater familiarity with the judicial decision maker and the courtroom, as well as from not having to repeatedly share their stories with a series of changing judicial officers (Martinson, 2010; Rubin, 1998). Other reported advantages of judicial consistency include long-term perspectives, discouragement of repeated party excuses, and prevention of judicial reliance solely on social service agency recommendations (NCJFCJ, 1995). In the Canadian context, Martinson (2010) praises the one family, one judge model as particularly useful in high-conflict family law cases, in which judicial continuity may decrease “inconsistencies in approach and results” (p. 186) by limiting manipulation, procedural delays, and conflicting judgments. Concerns around one family, one judge models center on whether they are feasible, which may depend on jurisdictional resources and on whether increased familiarity might give rise to procedural concerns or biases (Moye, 2004; Rubin, 1998).
Research on the One Family, One Judge Model
Research is important to assess how family court innovations are being implemented, whether they are achieving desired goals, and whether they have been associated with any unintended consequences (NCJFCJ, 2004). Despite the growing endorsement and application of one family, one judge docketing, there is little research evaluating the model. An evaluation of a one family, one judge, pilot program in North Carolina found that participating families were connected to resources more quickly, achieved case milestones in a shorter time, spent fewer court days per completed hearing, and had fewer children in nonfamily and out-of-home placements than nonparticipating families (Kirk & Griffith, 2006). A study of a New York City adoption reform project compared cases using a one family, one judge model with a randomly sampled control group from the point of termination of parental rights through adoption. This study found that judicial continuity was related to shorter time between termination of parental rights and the finalization of adoption among the intervention group compared with controls (Festinger & Pratt, 2002).
Stakeholder evaluations of one family, one judge programs indicate a strong agreement that the model creates a more informed bench and benefits the family by offering more coordinated services (Thoennes, 2001). Drawing on data from the study described here, we report elsewhere on a trend toward improved timeliness of processing of child abuse and neglect cases (Summers & Shdaimah, 2013a). We have also found a reduction in the number of judicial decision makers correlates with fewer continuances, which comes with fidelity to the one family, one judge model (Summers & Shdaimah, 2013b).
Although research on the one family, one judge model in child abuse and neglect cases is limited, a number of studies have examined the effect of a Unified Family Court (UFC) on increasing judicial oversight and familiarity with individual cases. UFC integrates jurisdiction over family or domestic relations (e.g., custody or visitation) with juvenile matters (e.g., delinquency or child abuse and neglect cases). The guiding principle of UFC is the same as the one family, one judge model: the belief that having one judge oversee all aspects of the family’s involvement with the court will enable that judge to have a better understanding of the complexity of the case and make more informed decisions for the family.
Washington State implemented a UFC system, which included the one family, one judge model. The majority of those responding to a qualitative survey of professional stakeholders indicated better continuity of judicial oversight and better judicial understanding of the complexities of family-case issues after this model’s implementation than before (Bauer, Christopher, Glenn, & Lucenko, 2004). UFCs have also been found to reduce the number of court appearances and offer better opportunities to respond to family needs (Chase & Hora, 2009).
Although the assessments reviewed in this section are informative, most do not focus specifically on the one family, one judge model, particularly as it pertains to juvenile dependency case processing alone. Furthermore, most assessments rely primarily on self-reported and stakeholder perceptions and do not examine more objective measures to determine how the one family, one judge model might affect outcomes for children and families.
Permanency of Placement
One important outcome measure for children in child welfare proceedings is permanency of placement. This goal is set out in federal legislation and may be accomplished in several ways (Adoption and Safe Families Act [ASFA], 1997). Permanency is primarily achieved at the resolution of a case when a child remains or is reunited with the family of origin, or when parental rights are terminated and the child is adopted. However, the permanency achieved at the resolution of child welfare cases may not in fact be stable or permanent. States as well as the federal government are seeking better information to help promote permanency over time. One of the most important measures of long-term permanency after a family is reunited is whether children remain in the home or reenter foster care (Jones & LaLiberte, 2010). Reentry into foster care after reunification raises concerns for permanency as well as for the safety of children.
To ensure conformity with federal mandates related to child abuse and neglect cases, the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2012) began reviewing state conformity, creating the Child and Family Services Review. The Child and Family Services Review measures conformity in safety, permanency, and well-being, and it improves the capacity of the states to help children and families involved in the child welfare system. The most important permanency outcome reviewed by the Child and Family Services Review is that children have permanency and stability in their living situations. This measure comprises several items, including the percentage of children exiting care to specific permanency outcomes (e.g., reunification with their families or adoption), timeliness to achieve permanency, and the permanency of reunification (i.e., how many children reenter the foster care system after reunification).
Asserting that courts have neither the capacity nor the experience in tracking outcomes to assess their performance, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) promulgated guidelines to help courts develop and implement performance assessments regarding the goals of the ASFA (Hardin & Koenig, 2008). In the permanency category, measures operationalize and evaluate the combined success of courts and child welfare agencies in achieving legal permanency by the time the court has closed each case involving children in foster care. “Legal permanency” has been defined as a permanent and secure legal relationship between the adult caregiver and the child (Hardin & Koenig, 2008, p. 37). It may be difficult to capture the court’s role in establishing children’s permanency, since permanency may be influenced by many other factors, such as the quality and availability of services for families and the availability of placement options. However, it is important that the courts attempt to understand how court practices (including the use of the one family, one judge model) may influence permanency outcomes.
This study examines whether use of the one family, one judge model is related to timely and safe permanent outcomes for children. To assess the effects of this model on permanency, we pose three research questions, drawing on the measures of permanency outlined in the Child and Family Services Review and suggested in the OJJDP guidelines (Hardin & Koenig, 2008):
- Do post–one family, one judge cases result in more permanent outcomes for children than pre–one family, one judge cases, as evidenced by a greater number of case dismissals, family reunifications, adoptions, and legal guardianships, and fewer relatively unstable outcomes such as aging out?
- Do post–one family, one judge cases have timelier permanency outcomes for children, as evidenced by a greater number of children achieving successful reunification with their families within 12 months of their removal compared with pre–one family, one judge cases?
- Do post–one family, one judge cases have safer permanency outcomes for children, as evidenced by fewer new petition filings (i.e., reentry) within 1 year of reunification than pre–one family, one judge cases?
Baltimore City Juvenile Court was selected as the study site for this project. Baltimore City Juvenile Court had begun making changes to their current practice as part of the Model Courts program from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. One of the first improvements that Baltimore City adopted was the one family, one judge practice, which was phased in over a 3-month period starting in October 2006 (Dancy & Gary, 2008; Tanner, 2009). The program began full-scale operations in January 2007. In Baltimore, judicial officers called Masters oversee Child in Need of Assistance (CINA) cases. The implementation of the one family, one judge practice begins after the first hearing, which is typically held on an emergency basis. After this emergency hearing, the CINA case is assigned to a “home court.” The home court hears the case until it is either resolved or moves to a termination of parental rights hearing, which must be heard by a judge. Judges and stakeholders were interested and willing to participate in the research project and helped facilitate access to case data.
In this study, we used child abuse and neglect case data from Baltimore City Juvenile Court to conduct a pre–post examination of the one family, one judge practice. We worked in close collaboration with Baltimore City’s Model Court team and the Model Court Lead Judge to devise a course wherein masters of social work students in an advanced research elective were trained to conduct applied research within the child welfare and court context. We developed a research design approved by the University of Maryland Institutional Review Board (IRB) and then trained the students to conduct a structured case file review. The Baltimore City Juvenile Court clerk’s office pulled case files from the locked files in the clerk’s office. We separated the files into two categories: case files from 2005–2006, before implementation of the one family, one judge practice; and case files from 2007–2008, after implementation.
We identified 443 case files from 2005–2006 and 286 from 2007–2008. Of 729 case files, we selected every tenth file for inclusion in the study. Ten students and 3 researchers recorded information for a total of 89 files: 43 from the period before implementation, and 46 after. Among the information recorded from the files was descriptive case information and case outcomes, which we report here. We also followed up on the case files we reviewed to determine whether children reentered the court system within 1 year after their cases were closed.
Cases from the pre- and post-implementation periods were statistically similar in terms of age, race, and sex of the child, primary allegation type, and charged party. The racial composition of the sample is similar to that of Baltimore City, with 74% of cases involving African American families, 15% Caucasian, 2% other minority, and 8% of unknown ethnicity. The sample included cases with slightly more female children (56%) than male children. Sixty-eight percent of cases involved primary allegations of neglect, 26% involved primary allegations of physical abuse, 6% involved primary allegations of sexual abuse, and 1% involved primary allegations of emotional abuse. Children were represented by an attorney or guardian ad litem in the vast majority of hearings. Eight of the 11 judicial officers remained the same throughout the pre- and posttest periods.
The majority of cases reviewed (89%, n = 78) were closed and had recorded case outcomes; 92% of these resulted in a permanent outcome for children, while the remainder had nonpermanent or unknown outcomes. Seventy-one percent of cases resulted in reunification, either through case dismissal or the juvenile’s return to the parent; 13% ended with legal guardianship; 6% resulted in the child aging out of the system; and 10% were still open or had no clearly documented case outcome.
Using chi-square analysis, we examined differences in rates of permanent versus nonpermanent outcomes. Before one family, one judge implementation, 86% of cases achieved a permanent outcome; after implementation, 83% of cases did. This difference was not statistically significant (p = 0.66).
We decided to further examine any differences in the specific type of permanency outcome by comparing rates of case dismissals (i.e., petition is dismissed), reunifications (after a finding of abuse or neglect), guardianship, and children aging out of supervision while still in foster care. We found two significant differences in the outcomes of case dismissals, x2 (1, 89) = 6.82, p < 0.01 and guardianships, x2 (1, 89) = 4.28, p < 0.05. Before implementation of the one family, one judge model, 9.3% of cases were dismissed; after implementation, 34.8% of cases were. Guardianships showed the opposite trend, with cases before implementation resulting in more guardianships (24%) than those after implementation (7%). There was no difference in the outcome of reunification (p = 0.81) or in the nonpermanent outcome of aging out of the system (p = 0.34) before and after implementation of the one family, one judge model. Differences in case outcomes are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Percentage of cases achieving specific case outcomes, comparing pre- and postimplementation of the one family, one judge model.
In addition to the type of permanency, we examined timely permanency. We assessed timely permanency by identifying the cases that achieved permanency within 12 months of the juvenile’s removal from the home, which is the goal set out in the Child and Family Services Review. Pre– and post–one family, one judge cases differed significantly on this measure [χ2 (84) = 3.91, p = 0.05]. Before the one family, one judge model was implemented, 33% of cases in which the child had been removed from the home achieved successful permanency within 12 months; after the implementation, this applied to 55% of cases.
We operationalized safe permanency by examining whether or not a new petition was filed (i.e., new allegations of abuse resulting in removal from the home) within 1 year of case closure or the child’s return home. Of the closed cases in the pre–one family, one judge sample, 17% had a new petition filed within 1 year, compared with 19% of the post-implementation sample. This difference was not statistically significant (p = 0.67), indicating that the one family, one judge model had no impact on safe permanency.
Results of this study support the implementation of a one family, one judge model of decision making. Although there was no difference overall in the percentage of cases that resulted in permanent outcomes or in safe permanency, there were important differences in specific permanency outcomes that we considered. After implementation of the one family, one judge model, significantly more cases were dismissed than before, resulting in a greater number of juveniles being reunited with their parents. This fact alone demonstrates that the one family, one judge model might help families to achieve timely permanency and the goals set out by the ASFA, which places a high priority on reunification outcomes, where appropriate. When viewed in combination with the finding that there were no differences in reentry rates before and after implementation of the one family, one judge model, this demonstrates that despite higher rates of reunification, there have been no corresponding increases in new allegations after case closures. Such a finding raises confidence that increases in permanency through reunification under the one family, one judge model do not come at the expense of child safety. Furthermore, this finding indicates that the one family, one judge model might increase the safe permanency of children in the juvenile dependency system. This gives modest but hopeful support for those who contend that the one family, one judge model results in better outcomes for families (Martinson, 2010; NCJFCJ, 2005).
Following implementation of the one family, one judge model, a greater number of juveniles achieved timely reunification with their families than before. Juveniles were 1.7 times more likely to be reunited with their families within 12 months of their removal after the one family, one judge model was implemented than before. Again, since we saw no differences in reentry rates, we assume that this timelier permanency is in fact permanent for children and their families, and that it comes with no adverse consequences regarding safety.
Although these results do provide support for the one family, one judge model in dependency cases, they do not tell us why these effects may have occurred. In its Resource Guidelines (1995), the NCJFCJ argues that the one family, one judge practice can lead to more efficient decision making. This could explain the findings presented here. If judges are involved from the start, they are more likely to be familiar with each case, understand the parent’s and child’s needs, and be able to work with the family to ensure they are getting the services they need to correct the problems that brought them before the court to begin with—all of which might explain the shortened time to reunification and the lack of difference found in reentry. It might also be true that having judicial continuity actually helps to engage parents in the process. Parents who are thus engaged may be more likely to attend court hearings and participate in the services, because they believe the judge cares about them and their children. Although the one family, one judge model could lead to more efficient decision making and better engagement, this cannot be determined based on current data and should be explored in future research.
This study had a number of limitations. First, the one family, one judge practice was not fully implemented, and it is therefore difficult to generalize from one court to another. The Baltimore City Juvenile Court implemented a version that begins only after the first emergency hearing, pertains only to dependency cases (unlike Unified Family Courts), and ends at the termination of parental rights hearings if cases continue to that stage.
The second set of limitations is methodological. Because this is a pilot study, the small sample size limits its generalizability. Replication of the study in Baltimore and elsewhere will reveal whether the findings reported here apply over time and across jurisdictions. Although the sample was random, it contained no cases that resulted in adoption, and we cannot determine how the court is faring with regard to that particular permanency outcome. In addition, our sample did not identify crossover youth. Dually involved and dually adjudicated youth may have particularly complex needs and often have poorer outcomes than children who are involved in either the child welfare or juvenile justice system alone (Culhane et al., 2011). Although the one family, one judge model may be particularly effective when judges oversee both case types for crossover youth, this was not something that we were able to examine using the current data. Baltimore City’s model court is working toward including these youth in the one family, one judge practice, but has not yet done so.
Finally, although the pre- and post-design is useful, it has limitations. It is difficult to draw conclusions about the use of a one family, one judge model without accounting for all changes that may have occurred in the court or child welfare system during this time. Future work could also examine other factors that may influence case outcomes, such as individual characteristics of judges or resource constraints. We were unable to quantify the savings to the court in the use of this model; however, future studies could examine the resource impact of the one family, one judge practice.
Although this study was limited in scope, it is a meaningful first step in examining the importance of judicial continuity in juvenile dependency case outcomes. Even without implementation of the full one family, one judge model, the changes we observed in judicial practice were related to improved permanency outcomes for children and families. Although we cannot say that the one family, one judge model assuredly caused these changes, we did see positive relations following implementation. More families were being reunited within 12 months of a juvenile’s removal without significant increases in reentry rates. Replication and expansion of this research with more rigorous methodology could offer a more complete understanding of how important judicial continuity might be in complex cases such as these.
About the Authors
Corey Shdaimah, LLM, PhD, is associate professor and academic coordinator, MSW/JD Dual Degree Program, University of Maryland School of Social Work, Baltimore, Maryland.
Alicia Summers, PhD, is senior research associate, Juvenile Law Programs, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Reno, Nevada.
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