Over the last year, Jackson County has implemented the Child Safety Decision-Making Model pilot, which has led to many changes in the Jackson County children’s court judicial process and is helping make sure the right decisions are being made about vulnerable children.
The Child Safety Decision Making Subcommittee was created in 2014 after the Wisconsin Commission on Children, Families and the Courts realized that their social workers, judges, lawyers and other members of the system were not all on the same page when it came to the language used in child welfare cases.
“Social workers have their language. They have a lot of items they learn through their safety intervention training as to when they should be removing children. Attorneys have their legalese and we are looking at the code itself to see what is in the code in regards to being able to remove a child. They really weren’t lining up at all and so we kind of came together to figure out how we can talk the same language so that we are making the best decisions possible for the children with the overall goal being having the right child in the right bed,” said Nicole Homer, Ho-Chunk Nation lawyer and member of the subcommittee.
After the completion of a successful pilot in Waukesha County, the subcommittee was looking for a smaller county to complete the pilot. Homer and Dan Williams, Jackson County DHHS children and families division manager, both sit on the subcommittee as representatives of Jackson County, so it was a natural fit to bring the pilot program to the county.
The first step in the pilot program was for the Children’s Court Improvement Program (CCIP) to analyze how Jackson County was doing.
“The Children’s Court Improvement Program will come in and do a baseline to determine how well we are doing in temporary physical custody hearings, which is the first hearing that happens when a child is removed from their parental home and placed in out-of-home care,” Williams said, adding that temporary physical custody hearings usually happen within 24-48 hours of a child being removed from a home.
During those hearings, the pilot program analyzed whether social workers were describing a child welfare case effectively using five child safety decision-making model measures: present danger, impending danger, child vulnerability, protective parent capacity and safety plan.
A child is considered unsafe if there is a present or impending danger threat to which the child is vulnerable to, and there is a lack of protective capacities to protect the child from that harm. A child is removed if a safety plan in insufficient to protect the child from danger.
The measures are used by social workers to defend why a child is considered unsafe and removed from a home, which all should be discussed at the temporary physical custody hearing.
However, CCIP found that these measures were not discussed at every hearing, instead finding that most of the measures were discussed less than half of the time in Jackson County cases.
Finding a common language
Though measures were not effectively discussed by social workers in Jackson County at the temporary physical custody hearings, members of the legal team like lawyers and judges were also unfamiliar with these terms and how social workers arrived at their decisions.
“The number one thing that I learned was actually learning what the standards are that the social workers utilize. I never knew them. I never heard them vocalized in the manner that we are now doing. I didn’t know any of that until I got on the subcommittee,” Homer said.
This deeper level understanding of the child welfare process by the legal system was one of the bigger goals of the pilot program.
“I think one of the goals we were hoping for is not only that everyone can understand and speak the same language about safety, but understanding that there is a process involved and that it is a structured decision-making process,” CCIP policy analyst Michelle Zaccard said explaining that ultimately the judge makes the final decision, but the information the social workers can provide help make that decision.
To help solve this issue, CCIP held a training for all Jackson County lawyers and judges that would be involved in child welfare cases to help describe the process.
“I never really knew what the social workers were looking at because I was just looking at what their Temporary Physical Custody Removal Form stated and then trying to fit it in with what the grounds are in the law because the law obviously is what I am more familiar with,” Homer said explaining that things like safety are not defined in the law, but yet social workers talked about it a lot when at court proceedings.
The lack of understanding between the legal system and child welfare agencies is why the training was necessary.
“Child welfare agencies have significant training in child safety and how to make those decisions, but what they recognized is the legal system doesn’t always have that same level of knowledge and we weren’t using a common set of terms to talk about child safety which was leading to confusion and frustration among the system,” Williams said.
Zaccard acknowledges that having active participants has helped the process.
“I think one of the things we have seen so far in the project in terms of each of the counties is we have had a lot of positive outcomes in terms of judicial leadership taking a big role in the success of the pilot,” Zaccard said.
Explaining social worker reasoning
To help increase the conversation about the child safety decision-making model measures, the pilot also required social workers to fill out a new form that was much more in-depth.
“So then at court all of the parties are aware of what the child welfare agency has done, why we feel it is contrary for the welfare of the child to remain in the home and provides an ability for us to explain it in the same terms,” Williams said.
With the social worker filling out this new form, many other advantages were observed.
“The social worker understands that the child is unsafe and has a reason for that, but putting it in writing has allowed them to really clarify the reasons and they are able to do it before they are in the courtroom,” Williams said. “Having it all spelled out on the supplement form...really helps the judicial system get a clear understanding of everything.”
This form even led to advantages for the parents and their legal representation.
“It allows the parent’s attorney to know our answer and not be surprised by information in court, and so they are able to have a conversation prior to court with their clients and be able to discuss what the agency has found and make an informed decision on how to proceed,” Williams said.
With this form, the judge is also able to be more informed and is more easily aware when something was not done correctly.
“I think it allows for a more fair representation on the parent’s behalf too because if we don’t answer a question on the supplement form, we know the judge is going to ask that question in court,” Williams said.
Child vulnerability was one of the measures that Jackson County social workers often missed before using the form. CCIP found that it was mentioned about 10 percent of the time in the temporary physical custody hearing.
“We have definitely started talking about that more at hearings where before some of it was assumed and some of it was glossed over, but now we are making an effort to talk about it in every court case because it is important that we talk about how they are vulnerable to that specific danger threat that is identified,” Williams said, adding that often social workers felt child vulnerability was obvious in some cases.
He said that even though it may have seemed obvious, the subject is still important to discuss because there are important child vulnerability distinctions when a 15-year-old can take care of themselves better than a 3-year-old.
After the training was implemented and the form used on every case, CCIP returned after six months and a year to tabulate the results.
After a year, all five child safety decision-making model measures were discussed in 100 percent of temporary physical custody hearings.
“The results were amazing. We literally went to 100 percent on all of the items we were supposed to be doing in those hearings. I believe the pilot was a success based upon what went into it between the forms, everyone getting trained on what to do and everyone speaking the same language within the court hearings,” Homer said.
Williams expects that using the child safety decision-making model has and will continue to ensure that the right child is in the right bed in Jackson County.
“This is showing to me that the judicial system is really interested in making sure children are safe and everyone is doing their part to make sure we are making good decisions. It is never an easy decision to remove a child from the home,” Williams said. “I think by increasing the conversation that we are having in court about safety, we are able to make sure we are only removing children when we need to.”
Even though the results were promising, CCIP did find some areas of best practice that Jackson County did not discuss all of the time at temporary physical custody hearings including educational stability and cultural and linguistic considerations.
Educational stability comes from a new federal law that was recently passed and is discussed in 80 percent of temporary physical custody hearings in Jackson County.
“If we remove a child from home and their school district because a foster placement or relative placement is outside of the school district boundaries, we are basically setting them back educationally,” Williams said.
The pilot also found that the county did not discuss cultural and linguistic considerations in 40 percent of cases. Williams expects that percentage mainly follows their cases that involved the Indian Child Welfare Act.
“We definitely talk about culture when we have ICWA cases, Indian Child Welfare Act cases, because the law requires us to do things a little different and look at placements,” Williams said. “I think what this showed is that we should be looking at other cultures as well and making sure that we recognize every family’s customs and cultural traditions and making sure the placement is able to support those.”
As an attorney representing the Ho-Chunk Nation, ICWA cases are important to Homer, which is one of the reasons she is on the subcommittee.
“So we ourselves have our own legal interests to make sure these cases are handled appropriately. So at times we might be in favor of what the county is doing, but however we might not be in favor so we might show up to object to what is going on,” Homer said.
The subcommittee and CCIP are conducting a pilot in La Crosse County. Once completed, Zaccard hopes the child safety decision-making model becomes the norm across the state.
“What we are doing now is continuing to meet as a subcommittee and certain subcommittee members are beginning to spread the word by giving different presentations at trainings and having people be aware that there are these circuit court forms related to child safety and doing presentations for those that want to do it,” Zaccard said. “Once we have the word out more, hopefully we can provide these trainings to other counties and get them to also use the same model.”