Published in Children’s Voice, Volume 28, Number 2

By Daniel Lieberman and Mary Quinlan

The judge takes the bench, gazing down at the victim. The lawyers are all sitting in their proper positions, readying themselves for the next argument. A deputy bailiff, wearing a bulletproof vest and with a firearm strapped to his belt, stands guard, looking stern. Strangers abound: clerks, court room case managers, and an audience, half paying attention in the pews. A grand, intimidating architecture reinforces the mighty power of justice, and a humming casual chatter fills the air as if it is just another day in court.

Any type of case could unfold in this scene, but this is not just any case. It’s a dependency case, in which a victim of severe abuse, trauma, and neglect is about to go in front of the judge, and in which the most personal aspects of their life will be discussed. For this child, there is no such thing as just another day in court.

Therapeutic Court was born out of the idea that courts can “protect, serve justice, and be therapeutic,” the founder of Therapeutic Court, Magistrate Judette Fanelli of Florida’s 15th Circuit Court, explains. Therapeutic Court serves mostly pre-teen to teenage children in the dependency system who have mental health diagnoses and disruptive behaviors. Some become labeled as “those kids.”

“They are the kids I would see year after year in my hearing room, says Fanelli. “They have all the potential in the world but need a team with patience, consistency, and follow-through to reach it.”

Child welfare laws around the country are designed to protect and heal children and families, but often, the administration and enforcement of these laws are at odds with their purpose. The traditional adversarial process created to get to the truth and protect the rights of the accused regularly produces anti-therapeutic results for the children who have been victimized, despite being delivered with good intentions. Dependency courts, like most courts, can be intimidating, overcrowded, and ill equipped to handle the sensitive, time-consuming subject matter the way a child who has been traumatized needs the experience to be managed. The dependency system is complex, and often suffers from lack of resources, high caseloads, constant turnover of staff, long wait lists, and not enough high-quality services to accommodate children’s needs. All of this adds to the urgency and importance of the court acting as a check and balance to the system, but also as a generator of solutions.

The Therapeutic Court team set about designing a new court that, while influenced by the specialty court model, is not a traditional specialty court. Most specialty courts focus on the person who has done something that brought them into the court system in the first place. Children who are a part of Therapeutic Court have done nothing wrong; many of them were born to parents who have untreated trauma of their own. The Therapeutic Court model was built upon a partnership between the Administrative Office of Florida’s 15th Judicial Circuit; the Florida Department of Children and Families; ChildNet, the local community-based care agency; the Florida Guardian Ad Litem Program; the Palm Beach County Legal Aid Society; and other community partners from the child welfare and treatment communities. The mission of Therapeutic Court is to facilitate a non-adversarial team approach to help children achieve permanency by addressing their clinical needs through child-specific services, regular judicial oversight, thoughtful review of psychotropic medication, and the procurement and nurturing of relationships and connections.

At the outset, the team compiles a comprehensive history of the child’s experiences with all the available information. This document, called a “Snapshot,” details information about the child’s biological family, each call to the abuse hotline, each placement change the child has experienced, therapies that have been provided, all psychotropic medication that has been prescribed, information about the child’s education, and any previous permanency efforts. The Snapshot includes the totality of interventions and the issues the child has been dealing with and highlights the glaring gaps of information in his or her history. When appropriate, the Snapshot is sent to doctors, clinicians, and placement providers so they can have the full picture before making decisions about what is best for a child clinically. Usually, this information lives in many different files and data systems but is inaccessible for everyday use. It helps bring understanding, tolerance, and clarity to some of the child’s behaviors and helps guide treatment recommendations.

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Daniel Lieberman, Esq., is the managing attorney for Children’s Legal Services for the 15th Judicial Circuit, Palm Beach County. He has worked for the Florida Department of Children and Families for 16 years and is the co-founder of the Therapeutic Court. He sits on multiple committees geared toward improving the system of care for children and families within the dependency system. He received his bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Florida and his juris doctor degree from Nova Southeastern University, Shepard Broad Law Center.

Mary Quinlan is the Chief Deputy Court Administrator for the 15th Judicial Circuit in Palm Beach County, Florida. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who oversees the family, probate, and juvenile divisions of the court. She is responsible for implementing numerous specialty courts and projects for the Circuit with a special focus on juvenile and mental health issues. She has worked with families and systems in the areas of domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health, and criminal justice for over 20 years. She holds a master’s in social work from the University of Pittsburgh and a bachelor of science in psychology from Pennsylvania State University.