Friday, October 31, 2014

CHINS UP: New tools to measure milestones in child welfare cases

October 28, 2013 by Elana Salzman

Photo of a child

In dependency cases, “a child’s sense of time is extremely important.” Allen Superior Court, Family Relations Division, Judge Charles Pratt emphasized this in a recent training on the new CHINS (Child in Need of Services) Timeliness Measures. Juvenile judges must be conscious of how court performance, including delays, affects children in their jurisdictions.

The new timeliness measures being implemented by Indiana’s trial courts provide objective data to shine a light on courts’ successes and to identify areas for improvement. They provide an important tool for determining the effectiveness of court actions in child welfare cases, and a starting point for evaluating county and statewide efforts to improve child welfare.

The statewide effort to measure timeliness in CHINS and TPR (Termination of Parental Rights) cases is off to a very successful start. Juvenile judges and staff have attended trainings and committed extra time to identifying the reportable cases and collecting the needed measures. The first reports were submitted in July. The Indiana Supreme Court’s Division of State Court Administration is also providing additional personnel support. While keeping their focus on the ultimate goal of improving the outcomes for Indiana’s most vulnerable children, Indiana’s judges and their staffs have taken the extra steps and gone the extra miles to gather the necessary data.

The implementation of these new measures was prompted by federal regulations governing the Court Improvement Program. The Court Improvement Program is a federal grant program whose goal is to improve the outcomes, procedures, and services for children in the foster care system. Indiana has participated in the Court Improvement Program since its inception in 1994. It has successfully developed uniform ways to obtain objective data and to measure the positive effect on children through program funding in the courts.

The timeliness measures are part of a larger set of criteria used to examine court performance in CHINS cases. They were developed in 2008 by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the National Center on State Courts, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and the ABA Center on Children and the Law. The measures, known collectively as the Toolkit, look at safety, permanency, due process and timeliness. They provide a comprehensive picture of the performance of our courts in serving children.

Allen County’s juvenile court judge Charles Pratt pioneered the use of the Toolkit as a pilot project during which his court reviewed and reported on many of the thirty measures listed in the Toolkit. Judge Pratt found that in doing so he was able to address, and to refute, unfounded claims about delays in cases in his court. He could identify which cases had not met statutory deadlines and the reasons for the delays. He discovered that, in nearly all of the cases, the delays were caused by the parties to the cases. Judge Pratt released Allen County’s findings to the media, and in doing so found that, rather than being critical of his numbers, the media was grateful for the transparency of the court.

At the Indiana annual Juvenile Judges Conference, Henry Circuit Court No.1 Judge Mary Willis and LaPorte Circuit Magistrate Nancy Gettinger spoke about the need for the measures as well as the nuts and bolts of collecting the necessary data. “Timeliness measures are important to ensure that we are achieving the best results for kids in the most expeditious manner possible,” said Judge Willis. She also noted that although the first reports may require more effort, the state case management system, Odyssey, has already been configured to streamline the collection process in future years.

Magistrate Gettinger spoke about her experiences implementing the measures. The data was a revelation to her in many respects. “I thought my numbers would be perfect and they were not.” A review of the numbers paved the way for improvements in her court procedures. These included simple steps such as providing better instruction to staff about calendaring of permanency hearings and exercising caution to only grant motions for continuance when there is a compelling reason. Magistrate Gettinger emphasized that accountability is the core measure as we strive to improve our juvenile courts and their impact on children.

The collection of objective data will help to correct misperceptions about our juvenile courts, from both the public and from within the court. It will also help courts make honest assessments of what is, and what is not, working for children and families. The Timeliness Measures are a first step in the right direction.

For additional information on the timeliness measures please contact Elana Salzman at (317) 233-3017,
elana.salzman@courts.in.gov.