By Judge Kelsey Hanlon • Owen Circuit Court II
At the Annual Meeting of Juvenile Judges in June 2021, the wisdom and potential of Indiana’s court-involved children was on clear display as four older youth with lived experience in Indiana’s foster care system educated juvenile judges about how the courts are missing the mark in working with older youth. Each of the panelists shared their unique experience with Indiana’s child welfare system, answered questions, and were unafraid to provide constructive feedback.
The realized potential of these panelists sparks so many questions. What made the difference in their success? Why are some older youth leaving care without basic connections? How do courts engage older youth as decision-makers in their own lives? What if participation in their own court hearings showed older youth that they have power and agency? What if the expectation in every case was that the judge hears directly from the older youth?
Older youth engagement goes beyond the moral and legal right to participate in their own case. It provides kids in care with opportunities to practice thoughtful decision-making, have positive experiences, and develop executive function—all of which promotes healing.1 By excluding older youth who have the maturity and desire to attend their own hearings, a court runs the risk of sending the implicit message to the youth that they are (again) powerless and that they are not capable of being an agent of change in their own life.
Before a judge decides that an older youth should not be present in court because of potentially distressing testimony or missed school, that older youth should be consulted. In many cases, they have lived the testimony and do not need the court to censor or sanitize it after-the-fact. The distress caused by uncertainty, feeling unheard, and receiving incomplete information about their case’s progression often outweighs any concern over what will be said in the hearing.
Not every older youth will want to participate in hearings. Courts should make sure older youth understand the array of ways in which they can participate in their own cases. Maybe an Older Youth Report to the Court is preferred. Perhaps they wish to communicate their wishes through their CASA or attorney. They may rather focus on out-of-court case planning by having their own child and family team meeting. Depending upon the procedural posture and specifics of the case, these may be additional options an older youth has to ensure their voice is heard by the people making decisions about their lives.
Older youth should also be provided with information about the hearing well in advance so they can prepare. Suggested practices include explaining the purpose of the hearing (including who will be there and what their roles are), what topics will be discussed, what reports the court considers, what questions the judge will likely ask, and who will be responsible for transporting older youth to hearings.
Authentic older youth engagement happens outside the courtroom as well, and expectations for case managers, court-appointed special advocates, parents, and counsel about an older youth’s involvement in their own case planning should be clearly and consistently addressed by the judicial officer. Educating older youth about their rights, about the purpose of case planning, and about the resources and opportunities available to them through their case is essential.
Demetrice Hicks—a former youth with lived experience in state care beginning at age 14—was engaged early in his case, but his effort was not adequately supported on an ongoing basis. He participated in his CHINS proceeding, providing the judge critical information about his circumstances, including the severity of the ongoing domestic violence against him and his mother and violence against him that was witnessed but not reported by his mother.
Despite his openness, Demetrice was given misinformation about his educational opportunities and expected to function as an adult without adequate support. How many older youth have experiences like his? And how is that experience of being unheard impacting their futures? How many older youth opt out of the benefits and safety net provided by collaborative care because they were not authentically engaged and just want out of a system where they felt disregarded?
Fortunately, his experience did not prevent Demetrice from achieving his educational goals; he eventually received a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science and is slated to complete his master’s degree in December 2022. He has been an outspoken advocate for youth in care, has written and spoken on child welfare related issues, and has even testified before the U.S. Congress. Demetrice Hicks stands as a clear example of the sort of potential we will leave untapped if we do not engage older youth.
When asked what he wished courts knew about authentic youth engagement, Demetrice explained that “engagement is just like customer service. Our youth are the best customers in this changing system. It’s their voices that should be valued and treated as a necessity to positive outcomes.”
Juvenile CHINS proceedings are often difficult, and resources are limited, but these excellent resources are available for courts ready to enhance their practices in youth engagement.
The Road to Adulthood: Aligning child welfare practice with adolescent brain development. The Annie E. Casey Foundation (2017). perma.cc/NF3W-YH9K
A Framework for Effectively Partnering with Young People. The Annie E. Casey Foundation (2019). perma.cc/6WS3-8KPQ
Authentic Youth Engagement: A Guide for Courts. Available in INcite, Juvenile Judges Conference Materials, June 2021.
1 How Adolescent Brain Science Supports Youth Engagement in Court Hearings and Case Planning. American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law. 2019.