Vol. 17, No. 1 • November 2012

An Interview with Judge Monica Bousman
A Judge's Perspective on Foster Parents and Court

by Amy Ramirez

Recently I had a chance to speak with Judge Monica Bousman, an experienced judge who has served in the 10th Judicial District in Raleigh, North Carolina since 2001. During our conversation I asked Judge Bousman if she had any advice for foster parents about how they can best contribute to the judicial process. (This interview has been edited for style and length.)

What should foster parents know about court?
Let me first say that I really see foster parents as being on the front line. They are the ones who have to watch the children, comfort them when they cry themselves to sleep at night, get them up, and get them to school.

When it comes to court, foster parents need to be reminded that they have the right to be present at any review hearings. And they have the right to be heard by the court. They should be getting a notice of hearing.

If they are not getting notice of hearings they need to talk to the clerk for juvenile matters or the social worker.

Do you have any advice for foster parents about attending court hearings?
Don't come to court unprepared. The more prepared for the hearing everyone is, the smoother and more quickly court goes.

What about preparing children and youth for court?
One thing that can really help children feel prepared is to come in and practice when the courtroom is empty. Show a child what a courtroom looks like. Share with the child where they will be sitting, who will be asking questions. They may want to come to a hearing when their case is not on the calendar.

This is about the children. This is their life and they are welcome to come to any hearing.

When they come in for a review I think the child needs to consider why they want to be there. Again, they are always welcome--but why are they coming? Do they want to be there just to hear what is going on and what people say?

Foster parents and others should help children understand that in order to talk to the judge in chambers all of the parties have to agree--including the parents. We have some parents that just flat out say "No. You are not talking to my child." If that is the case then it is not going to happen.

What is it like talking to children in court? What kinds of things do they say?
As long as they are respectful, children are always welcome to say what they want to say. However, lots of times it strikes me that the children clearly want to be there, but they also seem reluctant to say anything.

To help I'll usually start with some of the pleasantries. I'll ask questions such as: How are you? Where do you go to school? What grade are you in? I probably already know the answers to these questions.

Often I think they just want to meet the judge. They are very curious about who is making the decision about their life.

Sometimes I wonder--how has someone spoken to this child about the judge? Has it been in a good way or a bad way?

Sometimes they just want to say "I want to go home" or "I'm done with my parents."

Or they may know there are certain things that could happen and they want to tell the judge that this is what they want to happen.

Do most kids understand what is being decided in court?
Many don't see the danger to themselves that I do. This is the life that they know. Other times kids get into great foster homes and realize that not everyone lives like their family has been living.

What would you recommend if a child or youth chooses not to be present at a hearing?
If you are talking about a review hearing I would suggest they write a letter. They should understand that the judge is not the only one who will see the letter. Unless everyone agrees, at least the lawyers are going to see the letter and more than likely the lawyer is going to share it with the child's parents. The child needs to understand that this may not be for the judge's eyes only.

How else can foster parents contribute to the judicial process?
One of the things I suggest to foster parents to help the child--and thus assist the court--is consider keeping a journal of what they're doing. Sometimes the easiest way to keep that journal is to get a huge calendar and write down when and what things happen. Try it.

If the parent is permitted to call the foster home or the child is able to call the parent–do those phone calls happen? Sometimes it is just as important to know what doesn't happen.

Keep a record of things like this. Document "We had a visit and the child was laughing and skipping and having a good time" or "I got that child home and there was a terrible nightmare that night." Write down the things children say about events. It might not be admissible in court, but write it down. Let the lawyers worry about whether it is admissible or not.

Amy Ramirez is Training Coordinator with the Family and Children's Resource Program at the UNC-CH School of Social Work.

Sharing Written Information with the Court

Because of their "24-7" contact with the child, foster parents have more relevant information than almost anyone else. By sharing what they know, they can help the court make the best decisions possible.

The best way to share what you know is to attend the hearing. However, if you can't attend the hearing, providing a written report is the next best thing.

When providing a written report to the court, give it to the social worker at least one week before the hearing. If you ask the social worker to attach your report to their report, they will do so. Any reports you submit will be distributed to everyone involved in the case.

Your report should be typed, short (a few pages), and organized by headings. Describe behavior you have observed in the child and present information about the child's needs. Focus on firsthand information about the child. Present facts, not opinions.

Never call or send the judge a letter. Contacting a judge in this way is called ex parte communication and is prohibited by the ethical provisions applying to both lawyers and the court.

Adapted from Iowa Child Advocacy Board and Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parent Association

To view references cited in this and other articles in this issue, click here.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~