On March 4, 2020, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) hosted a briefing, “Ensuring Timely and Safe Family Reunification: A Juvenile and Family Court Judge’s Role in Providing Hope for a Better Future.” The event was sponsored by Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), who closed the event by sharing his plan identified as the Five Freedoms For America’s Children. He believes that every child should have five basic freedoms and that our society must guarantee to our Nation’s children. The Five Freedoms are:
1. Freedom to Be Healthy
2. Freedom to Be Economically Secure
3. Freedom to Learn
4. Freedom from Hunger
5. Freedom to be Safe from Harm
The briefing started with testimony from Denise, a senior in college and former foster care youth. Denise and her sister entered foster care after her mother wrote a fake check to avoid abuse from their alcoholic father. Her mother was incarcerated, and Denise and her sister would visit her in jail. Despite finding a foster family she liked, Denise always wanted to be reunified with her parents. Denise is now an advocate for timely reunification and financial assistance for rent, because had her family received aid, her mother wouldn’t have written the fake check, and their family could have stayed together.
Next, a panel of four judges shared their thoughts on the best ways to reunify families quickly and safely. Judge John Romero from New Mexico emphasized that cases need to be treated individually, and the children need to be involved as much as possible. Judge Romero wants the children to be in court to not only meet him but to see that their parents are alive. He also encourages children to visit their parents in jail, if safe, so they can have a relationship still.
Judge Aurora Martinez Jones of Austin, Texas, also agreed that cases need to be treated individually. She believes that you need to understand a family and the root of issues in order to work towards reunification. Judge Jones stressed that it is unfair for judges to set unattainable criteria for reunification, and each family should have personalized expectations that are reasonable. Judge Erik Pitchal of New York discussed the irony of a judge ordering a removal then immediately working towards reunification to “undo” that order. Judge Pitchal said that judges, when signing the order, have agencies enroll the parent in services they can access and consider the parent’s situation such as location and transportation options. He also shared that Congress’ goal is reunification based on their policies and funding that they appropriate for child services.
The final panelist, Judge Ramona A. Gonzalez of Wisconsin and NCJFCJ President, shared what NCJFCJ offers to members and judges. Judge Gonzalez spoke on how important it is for criminal judges to understand the impact decisions have on families. In Denise’s testimony, if writing a fake check wasn’t a felony, Denise and her sister might not have been removed. Overall, the briefing demonstrated the important role judges play in reunifying families.