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New York Shares Model Court Practices Statewide

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When it comes to children's well-being, representatives from many systems are working to achieve improvements. Sometimes working together can be challenging, especially if the project involves more than just a local community. But Sharon Townsend of the New York State Model Court and Edwina Richardson-Mendelson of the New York City Model Court shared their experience in bringing best practices state-wide at CWLA's national conference in late March.

The starting point for the collaboration in New York was a 1995 publication from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Resource Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Child Abuse & Neglect Cases (available at "Anyone can do this work if you follow these guidelines," Townsend said. In fact, in the 1990s it seemed everyone was trying to improve court practice in New York. Two model courts, in New York City and Erie County, were already up and running. In 1994, the statewide Child Welfare Court Improvement Project began to implement reforms in child welfare court practices. And after a round of the Child and Family Service Reviews, the Program Improve-ment Project strategy for New York included better cooperation between the courts and child welfare as well. All of the work would overlap between the judicial system and the child welfare system. Townsend put it simply: "We decided it would make sense if we were working together instead of having three or four projects with the same people."

Those people included a leadership team at the Office of Court Administration and the Office of Children and Family Services, a CWLA member. They would be intervening at the point of intersection between their two interdependent systems. They made a commitment to work together and codified their collaboration with a team mission. "We were all working on the same goal, the same end, the same mission," Townsend said, pointing out that to her the key part of the mission was how it would be achieved--"through data sharing, cross-systems training, onsite technical assistance, and other joint initiatives." Establishing the mission was critical for starting the collaboration on a positive note, and outlining things that the group wanted to achieve together helped build trust. Townsend recalled early meetings, where the attendees would be standoffish. "Change is hard," Townsend admitted. "It is really hard, and it doesn't happen overnight--and we're still not there yet."

The leaders identified and approached 22 local jurisdictions that would end up working together in the statewide model court: the 5 boroughs of New York City, 16 counties throughout the state, and the Saint Regis Mohawk tribe. Participation was voluntary. These 22 jurisdictions represent nearly 90% of the children in care in New York, Richardson-Mendelson noted. Each area sent judges, clerks, attorneys, and child welfare staff to be trained together, so everyone was clear on everyone else's role and everyone got the same message at the same time. The jurisdictions, grouped together according to comparable sizes and practices, "learn from each other based on these similar experiences," Townsend explained.

Richardson-Mendelson highlighted a few of the areas the model court has focused on improving. One of the early targets was making sure court appearances were meaningful. "Everybody was saying the same thing," she explained: that for roughly two-thirds of court meetings, the purpose of the meeting was achieved, but that for the remaining third nothing meaningful happened. Compounded week after week, this led to what a colleague called "trial by teaspoonful." Related to this was ensuring court scheduling lived up to a practice called "time-certain calendaring," essentially a commitment to starting and ending court sessions on time so children and parents aren't waiting for their case to be heard. Time-certain calendaring is now mandatory.

From the beginning, participants have been aware of an obligation to collect, analyze, and share data about their practices--this is a key aspect of a model court, which by its nature tries new things. "It's critically important to take a look back and ask if these things we've done have made a difference, and is it the difference we intended?" Richardson-Mendelson noted. Townsend agreed: "We hope to show from the data that what we're doing is making a difference."

Meghan Williams is a contributing editor to Children’s Voice.


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