San Diego County Bar Association Task Force on Children at Risk Final Report
The Anti-Father Justice System
San Diego County Bar Association Task Force on Children at Risk Final Report
Preface: Honorable Napoleon A. Jones, Jr., United Stated District Court, Southern District of California.
I would like to thank Ms. Regina Petty, President of the San Diego County Bar Association, and the Directors of the Bar for affording me this opportunity to work with the Task Force on Children at Risk, a working group comprised of members from the Bench and Bar. This Committee met at least monthly for approximately ten months. It exemplified, in microcosm, the legal community's general frustration about the overall functioning of an overburdened, undersubsidized system of care for our children. The system has repeatedly confronted the community with the reality that, to a great extent, we are jeopardizing, if not losing, our most precious resource -- our children.
The Bar Task Force reinforced my belief that we can save this resource. For many years I served on the Juvenile Court Bench, and twice in the capacity of Presiding Judge.
Since leaving that court, I have been approached thousands of times by individuals who wanted to do something to help, but there was no plan of action. What follows is a workable blue print for the meaningful involvement of the Bench and Bar in addressing the needs of our children.
"The test of a nation's strength is the condition of its weakest and most vulnerable members...The interlocking crises of child poverty, divorce, disease, violence and abandonment are symptoms of a pervasive devaluation of children in our culture. Any one of these trends by itself would be bad for children. But together they show a portrait of a generation under attack from every direction. Many of the most disadvantaged children have multiple problems: A foster child may come from a divorced family, have health problems, and experience poverty. In this 360-degree free-fire zone, children don't have a chance." ...From Cradle to Grave, Jonathan Freedman
For the last 10 months, the San Diego County Bar Association Task Force on Children at Risk has explored the lives of children in San Diego. Using the 1994 ABA Report America's Children at Risk as our guide, we set out to discover what the San Diego legal community could do to meet our children's unmet legal needs. Each month the volunteers who served on the Task Force, all of them San Diego County judges and attorneys, convened for a three hour seminar focused on a particular issue. We invited experts and leaders from the community to give us their perspectives, and to educate us about what needs to be done. Over half of the presenters were non-lawyers. Topics included such areas as domestic violence and its impact on children, special education, substance abuse and mental and physical health. Our monthly "mini-seminars" always ended with the same question:
What can we do -- as lawyers and judges, as mothers and fathers, as neighbors -- to improve the lives of the most vulnerable members of our San Diego community?
We have six recommendations for action. What we heard again and again from community leaders was how much our help was needed. They asked us to encourage judges to develop coordinated strategies with law enforcement in the area of domestic violence, to educate parents on the rights of their children to special education services and to assist community activists with the creation of regulations which would keep one more liquor store from opening in a neighborhood. We learned that thousands of our country's children are at risk as victims of violence in their community, at risk of failure in schools, and at risk for low birth weight due to inadequate pre- natal care. These children and their families need and deserve the help of many people, including the legal community.
We recognize that the members of the Bar cannot alone hope to solve the problems of poverty, malnutrition, mental illness, violence and family disintegration. We also firmly believe, as individual practitioners and as judges who have seen hundreds of cases involving these issues, that the family is the foundation for a child's welfare and happiness. Yet, we believe that members of the legal community can help. We have the needed skills and expertise and we should work within our communities to develop solutions to these problems. With this is mind, we offer the following six recommendations for consideration by the entire Bar, and for action by those with the conviction and courage to lend their skills and hearts to this effort.
If you are interested in helping in any way, please contact the San Diego County Bar Association at (619) 231-0781, and request that a Task Force member contact you. We will call you and find the best way for you to contribute your time and talent.
Our General Recommendation: The San Diego County Bar Association Should Establish a Standing Committee on Children- at-risk
In 1990, 92,928 children between the ages of 0 - 18 were living in poverty in San Diego County. Children account for over one-third of all San Diegans in poverty.
The San Diego County Bar should establish a standing committee on children's legal issues that will advance the interests of children in different legal forums, before the public and before decision makers. The critical action areas the committee should initially consider include: domestic violence and its impact on children; the impact of societal violence on youth; access to quality mental and physical health care; substance abuse; poverty and its affect on families; and the education rights of children. The standing committee will help promote our children's legal needs by helping to implement the following five recommendations. Each recommendation is detailed in the body of this report.
Recommendation #1: Increase the legal services available to children.
Recommendation #2:Educate the community, so that adults who care about children, or who care about a particular child, can be zealous advocates.
Recommendation #3: Train the bench and the bar on children's legal issues.
Recommendation #4:Encourage and support the Judges of the Superior and Municipal Courts in solving court organization problems which hamper the court's effectiveness in serving the children's needs.
Recommendation #5:Attorneys practicing in relevant areas of the law should become more active as advocates for statutory or public policy changes which affect the children and families who are our clients.
Recommendation #1: Increase the Legal Services Available to Children
Cuts in legal services could leave San Diego's children with no low-cost lawyers to represent them in guardianships, special education cases, domestic disputes or public benefits appeals.
The Task Force found there is a critical lack of funding for children's legal services in a number of areas. Children are at risk due to domestic and community violence, poverty, public benefits cuts, inadequate educational programs, and poor mental and physical health. The Task Force considered a number of initiatives which would increase children's access to representation in the legal proceedings which touch on these important areas of their lives.
1. Vigorously support existing pro bono programs for children at the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program (SDVLP), and continue to support funding for legal services to poor children through the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, Inc., the SDVLP and California Indian Legal Services.
2. Support development of a group of lawyers and advocates with expertise in special education:
3. Establish a committee of lawyers to develop expertise in the area of confidentiality and health care, in anticipation of access and service delivery problems encountered by poor children covered by Medi-Cal managed care plans.
4. Work to ensure the availability of pro bono and low-cost legal representation to victims of domestic violence, including children, and:
5. Sponsor an "Adopt a child/Empower the family" program to provide legal representation throughout the age of minority that will:
Recommendation #2: Educate the Community, so that adults who care about children, or a particular child, can be zealous advocates.
Children in foster care are 2 to 3 times more likely than the general school-age population to have a disability related to education.
While community education is needed in many areas, the Task Force has prioritized the need to educate the parents of children with special needs, including physical, emotional and mental disabilities. Parents and caregivers are often uninformed about available special education services for these children. Moreover, parents are not always aware of the Federal law requiring the state to provide eligible youth with special education services. We also examined children's health concerns. The data indicates that a healthy early childhood correlates with future well-being. Thus, the future of the community is dependent on a healthy generation of children.
We were also asked to help communities suffering from youth violence to develop Alternative Dispute Resolution and educational programs on the legal nature of the parent-child relationship.
1. Show support for Alternative Dispute Resolution programs, particularly in communities where young people are quick to resolve situations with violence, and:
2. Make available information on issues of concern to parents and caregivers of children with special needs:
3. Provide community outreach in connection with local organizations:
4. Launch a public education campaign on child abuse, together with other interested professionals and with the assistance of the Bar's public information and public relations committees on child abuse:
mpact of abuse and neglect on children.
5. Have the Children and the Law committee in conjunction with the public information and public relations committees create a logo and slogan to:
Recommendation #3: Train the Bench and the Bar on Children's Legal Issues
From 1984 - 1991, juvenile caseloads rose nationally by over one-third. Domestic relations cases made up roughly one-third of all civil cases filed in courts of general jurisdiction in 27 states surveyed in 1990.
People have a right to demand that Juvenile Court judges and attorneys be of the highest caliber, as they are addressing the most complex and important issues facing society today. Moreover, Superior and Municipal Court judges handle civil and criminal cases every day involving the difficult issues of domestic violence, substance abuse, custody, child support and child welfare. Accordingly, we make the following recommendations to ensure our courts are staffed with judicial officers and attorneys trained to recognize legal issues which impact children.
Besides adequate training, the Task Force also found it extremely important that the Bench and Bar continue to diversify. African-American and Latino children are overrepresented in the dependency and delinquency systems: justice demands that these children have access to courts which reflect their identity and cultures.
1. a) The Presiding Judge of the Superior Court in conjunction with the Presiding Judge of the Juvenile and Family Court should establish:
b) Juvenile Court judicial officers should receive training before and during their tenure at Juvenile Court in:
c) Implement interdisciplinary training for the bench and bar through collaboration with local universities and other professionals on topics including, but not limited to, the following:
2. In addition to the above interdisciplinary training, training for attorneys should be improved by:
3. Directors of public law offices should demonstrate the importance of work in Juvenile Court by:
Recommendation #4: Encourage and support the Judges of the Superior and Municipal Courts in solving court organization problems which hamper the courts in serving children's needs.
Nationally, 3.3 million children witness domestic violence in the home each year. In San Diego, there were approximately 5,200 arrests for domestic violence in 1994, and 7,370 Temporary Restraining Order issued on claims of domestic violence.
The courts, particularly the Family and Juvenile Court, should recognize their responsibility toward encouraging healthy families. In particular, matters involving allegations of abuse and/or disputed custody frequently result in emotional abuse to children. Orders involving domestic violence may be entered on numerous occasions in different cases involving the same persons, but with no knowledge by each court of pre-existing violations. Courts can be better organized to handle cases involving children in ways that both protect children's interests and safety, yet provide effective reunification plans and enforcement of court orders. In this regard, the following are the Task Force recommendations.
1. The San Diego County Bar should support efforts to create a unified family court by:
2. The county should expand low-cost counseling services for children and spousal victims of domestic abuse establishing additional programs which provide continuity and consistency throughout the legal and judicial system.
3. The courts (Family, Juvenile, Criminal domestic violence) should train and alert attorneys to the problems of monitoring parental compliance with family court orders for domestic violence programs, parenting classes, counseling, etc.:
4. The courts (Family, Juvenile, Criminal domestic violence) should establish a means to communicate, coordinate and share data through computer access and other information sharing mechanisms:
5. The courts, law enforcement agencies, social services providers and mental health professionals should develop protocols for handling domestic violence cases, and for getting accurate information to the court about each case.
Recommendation #5: Attorneys practicing in relevant areas of the law should become more active advocates for statutory and public policy changes which affect at-risk children and their families.
12% of the nation's children suffer from mental health problems severe enough to require professional mental health treatment. In San Diego, our current system reaches only 4.7% of the children in need.
Attorneys with practices in civil law, who do not see themselves as practicing in areas of law related to children, can help think through new solutions to old problems. There is a need for expertise in administrative law, federal regulatory law, health care law and constitutional law. Any attorney frustrated with injustices and inefficiencies can be an active advocate for changes in statutes or public policies.
We call upon attorneys to become advocates in new arenas, including the legislature and local bodies of government, and to share their knowledge and expertise to create better laws for children. We begin with four recommendations on issues of current importance to children.
1. The Juvenile Court Bar, the new standing committee and the bench should discuss the desirability of changing statutes to return to a system of "dual" jurisdiction (dependency and delinquency):
2. Services to seriously emotionally disturbed children should be consolidated and alternatives to hospitalization and care far away from home should be aggressively explored, to promote children's legal rights and public welfare. We support:
3. The Board of Supervisors should require the Children's Services Bureau and the Probation Department to keep annual statistics of the wards and dependents requiring mental health services. These statistics should include:
4. Members of the Bar should support the efforts of the statewide "Campaign to Prevent Handgun Violence Against Kids" including: