Vol. 17, No. 1 • November 2012

Supporting Young People When it is Time for Court

Most young people in foster care are invited to attend court, to be involved in the proceedings, and sometimes to testify. That's a good thing, because hearing from children helps judges make appropriate decisions. But that doesn't mean being in court is easy for kids.

In fact, many young people report feeling anxious, angry, and frustrated with their experiences in court (Zinn & Slowriver, 2008). To change this, resource parents must know how to prepare children for court and support them afterwards.

Court Can Be Scary for Kids
Court is hugely important to children in foster care. After all, it's where decisions are made about whether they can go home. If children are crime victims, court is where the person who committed the crime--possibly a family member--will be tried and, if needed, sentenced. Given the seriousness of the issues being decided, simply knowing court is being held can be anxiety producing.

Being present in court can be even moreso. Children may feel scared and uncomfortable about testifying in front of judges, lawyers, and people they don't know. Memories of their abuse or neglect may rise to the surface.

They may experience overwhelming emotions. If the abuser is a loved one, children may blame themselves for the charges against that person. Or they may think that if they testify about the maltreatment they won't get to go home. There may be feelings of intense self-blame, especially if the child's brothers or sisters have also been placed in care and are upset with them for disclosing the abuse and neglect (Jenkins, 2008).

A Resource Parent's Role
Fortunately, there's a lot caregivers can do to support children in foster care around court.

Before Court
Educate yourself. Foster parents and kinship caregivers must understand how the court process works and who the different players are. Your licensing social worker is a good source of this information, as he or she will be able to provide you with details about how your particular judicial district works. Other good sources for learning about relevant court procedures in North Carolina are:

Chapter 13 of Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect in North Carolina, http://bit.ly/Nco2oy. Provides a good description of procedures in child welfare cases.

Help Your Kids Help Themselves: A Parent's Guide to the Juvenile Justice Process, http://bit.ly/SfnYVy. Explains what happens if a child in your care commits a crime.

North Carolina Juvenile Court: Child Protection Hearings: A Handbook for Parents, http://bit.ly/UIAUWz. Explains the court process and people involved in abuse, neglect, and dependency cases. Produced by North Carolina's Court Improvement Program.

Prepare the child. As mentioned above, the court process can be nervewracking for children. But most resource parents naturally do a lot of things for children that indirectly help them prepare for and cope with the stresses of the court process. These include getting to know and building a trusting relationship with the child, nurturing the child, and reaching out to birth families through the shared parenting approach.

It is important to be able to provide answers to the questions children have about court. The child's attorney and the child's social worker will probably be the best people to answer the child's questions. However, sometimes it falls to foster parents and kinship parents to respond, so you should be ready to respond to questions* such as:

Children's Initial Questions

  • What does the courtroom look like?
  • Who will be in the courtroom?
  • What does each person in the courtroom do?
  • Where will I sit? Who will sit next to me?

Children's Ongoing Questions

  • What is the purpose of the hearing?
  • Who will be attending the hearing?
  • Will I be expected to speak? What if I don't not want to speak? Can another means of communication be used?
  • What should I do if I have questions, need to use the bathroom, or feel scared?
  • How am I expected to behave? What happens if I misbehave?
  • Can I bring quiet toys to court?
  • Can I bring a support person or item to court?
  • How should I dress for court? Why is attire important?
  • How long will the hearing last?
  • How long will the child have to wait for the hearing?
  • Where will the child wait for the hearing?

Visiting the courthouse in advance is one way to allay children's fears and answer their questions. Contact the child's social worker to see about arranging a field trip to the courthouse. Be sure to bring books or appropriate toys on this outing, in case you must wait.

After Court*
In an ideal world, after a hearing the attorney for the child should debrief the child about the experience. However, sometimes it falls to resource parents or the child's caseworker to do this.

Whoever does the debriefing should begin by thanking the child for their courage and the part they played in the court process. Make sure the child understands what happened, what the implications of the hearing are for the child, and what happens next. One of the goals of this discussion is to identify any supports the child might need going forward.

* Adapted from New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children, 2008

More Tips for Preparing Children for Court

Normalize anxiety. Reassure children that anxiety about court is normal and everyone, including social workers and lawyers, experiences it.

Ensure the child understands that sometimes several hearings are held and they may have to return to court.

Even if they aren't attending, tell children that a hearing about them is scheduled. This may cause some anxiety, but it is better than an “out of the blue“ announcement about the court's decision.

If the child is not attending court but wishes to write a letter to the judge, make it clear the letter will be read by all parties at the hearing.

You can't know in advance what will be decided in court, so don't make promises to children you can't keep (e.g., that they'll never be asked to talk about their abuse or neglect in court again).

Avoid critcizing any parties in the case. It's okay to describe an individual's behavior as bad, but not the individual him or herself.

Never give gifts or rewards to a child for testifying in court. This could make it seem as if you are trying to influence the child's testimony.

Be sure to thank the child for their courage and their willingness to be involved in the court process.

Source: Baldwin, 1998

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 ~