But there’s one person missing at most child welfare hearings: the child whose fate is being decided.
Some Nebraska child and legal advocates think the situation should change.
Vicky Weisz, director of the Nebraska Court Improvement Project, said children benefit and the court process benefits from having youngsters attend and take part in child welfare hearings.
“All the studies have shown that children want to have their voices heard,” she said. “Children as young as 8, they wanted to know what was going on.”
But for children who can’t be in court, a court questionnaire aimed at teenagers and preteens and a new form for younger children offer ways to make their voices heard.
Weisz said the push to involve children in court hearings started about 10 years ago, when former foster children’s groups began calling for “nothing about us without us.”
The American Bar Association threw its support behind the idea and launched a project encouraging children to be included in court hearings.
More recently, the Nebraska Supreme Court’s Through the Eyes of the Child Initiative included presentations about children in court in its regional conferences. Attendees at the eastern Nebraska conference, held in Lincoln, expressed interest in the idea.
But only a couple of hands went up when the presenter asked how many of the assembled judges, attorneys and others regularly included children in their child welfare proceedings.
Sarpy County Juvenile Judge Robert O’Neal said he believes teenagers should come to hearings 99 percent of the time.
However, he said, logistical problems can create barriers. Someone has to make arrangements with foster parents and schools and get the child transported to court.
That might not happen unless the child’s guardian ad litem or CASA volunteer or some other party pushes for it, he said.
Others expressed concern about having youngsters present when the courtroom discussion turns to the parents’ problems or brings up painful topics.
Weisz did a study that found those fears may be overblown.
The report, published three years ago in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect, compared the reactions of children who attended court hearings with those who did not. The children ranged in age from 8 to 18.
Weisz found no evidence of harm to the children who went to the hearings. Even those who were emotional during the hearings said later they were glad they had attended.
“I think in our worry about seeing them cry, we don’t realize they need to know,” she said. “Most of these kids say there’s little that has happened that they don’t already know because they’ve lived it.”
The children who went to hearings reported more trust in the process and in those making decisions for them, according to the report. And they overwhelmingly said they believed that children should be able to go to court.
Jennie Cole Mossman, a therapist who now works for the Court Improvement Project, said her experience in counseling foster children backs the study findings.
Children who did not go to court often felt out of the loop, a concern they ended up having to address in therapy, she said.
In some cases, children wound up with faulty ideas about what was happening with their family because they had to rely on secondhand information.
“Sometimes it’s better to have an answer than to make up an answer,” she said. “Kids think it’s their fault.”
Even having young children come to court can be valuable, Mossman said.
“I think it reminds everyone in the court why they are there,” she said.
The youth questionnaire or young child form can be useful as a backup or supplement to having the child in court, Weisz said.
Project Everlast, a foster youth advocacy group, created the questionnaire four years ago to give foster teens and pre-teens a chance to describe their lives and wishes to the court.
Questions range from whether youths are satisfied with their current placement to plans for the future and how the judge or others could help them realize those plans.
The Court Improvement Project developed the young child form recently.
The form has space for elementary-age children, with the help of an adult, to list their top three wishes, the things they do or don’t like about school, who they talk to when they are upset and more.
The form also tells children that, while the judge wants to hear from them, the judge can’t always get them what they ask for.