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Juvenile Court, DFCS, child advocates adjust to life in pandemic
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Judge Lindsay Buron's courtroom is on display during an open house at the Courthouse Annex for Hall County commissioners and others on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

While children and parents need to see each other, Juvenile Court Judge Lindsay Burton said the health and safety of families “is paramount in any decision regarding visitation.”

Burton signed an interim order March 18 regarding court-ordered visitation for dependency cases.

“The court is requiring that separated families maintain regular contact with each other, if visitation was previously awarded by the court. The court is not requiring in-person, face to face, visitation between parents and children. However, any in-person, face to face visits that can occur are encouraged to continue,” according to the order.

DFCS will work with parents and foster families to facilitate contact by video conferencing applications or through telephone calls. Juvenile Court was also encouraging “frequent video calls as a preferred substitute for in-person visits.”

An example given was, “Instead of visitation twice weekly, three to four video calls for 10 to 15 minutes each call.”

“Some foster parents understandably are saying … ‘I don’t know where they are going and who is there when they go to these visits. I don’t know where those folks have been during their week, and I am unwilling to put myself and the other folks in this house at risk,’” attorney Ari Mathe said.

The order will run through April 13.

Mathe said the video visitation is getting the job done but is likely not as meaningful particularly with younger children.

Court via conferencing

Burton puts on her robe and enters an often empty courtroom.

She calls the case for the record in case anyone is there to listen to the proceedings in the Hall County Juvenile Court, but it’s been a ghost town. The court has been able to hold many of the hearings via teleconference.

Her only company is a Hall County Sheriff’s Office deputy and sometimes her clerk, who at times starts recording and then leaves.

This is Burton’s new way of life in response to the coronavirus. Sometimes all of the sides present the facts of the case in a consent order without having a hearing.

The emergency judicial order originally filed March 13 sought to limit civil and non-essential court matters as well as delay jury trials.

What’s essential in Juvenile Court are the hearings that happen 72 hours after the Division of Family and Children Services removes children from their homes due to reports of abuse or neglect. DFCS calls the judge to get the OK before removing children, which was already standard procedure.

Also essential are detention hearings for juveniles who face criminal charges.

Essential hearings, according to the emergency judicial order, are defined as matters important “to protect the health, safety and liberty of individuals.”

“Working in Juvenile Court, it’s kind of hard to find anything non-essential. We’re dealing with kids who are oftentimes in crisis if they’re charged with offenses and families that are in crisis if children have been removed from their care,” Burton said. “It’s pretty clear that the Supreme Court really wants to limit the number of people walking in and out of the courthouse, so we really evaluate every single hearing if it is an essential hearing.”

Attorney Thereasa Rinderknecht said she does not believe there will be any significant delays in cases leading up to reunification of child and parents or the termination of parental rights.

“The openness of communication and the willingness to come together to problem-solve has kind of been a shining moment throughout all of this,” she said.

Because of a shortage of foster homes in the Hall County area, Mathe often makes a long haul to see the children she represents.

With people sheltering in place, Mathe has been able to stay connected to her clients in less time through texts and emails.

“I was able to meaningfully connect … with all of my clients over the last week and a half. There’s no way I could do that if I was on the road going to visit for one client here, one client there, in court for 12 hours, those kinds of things,” Mathe said.

Rinderknecht echoed Mathe’s sentiments. Not being in court three full days a week on average means more time to connect with clients.

“I have connected with a couple of my teenagers far more over the last two weeks than I would usually be able to because I would be in the car on the way to do an in-person visit or I would be in court for eight hours,” she said.

The judges have worked to consolidate court matters as much as possible to limit any big crowds, and conference calls have been effective in keeping cases on track.

There have been no detention hearings since the order was enacted.

“There’s a lot of complications when the child goes into the (regional youth detention center). The Department of Juvenile Justice doesn’t want to transport any of those kids to court, because they’re worried that they’ll be exposed to something here and then bring it back into the facility, which could be extremely detrimental,” Burton said.

Keeping eyes on the children

DFCS regional director Holly Campolong said caseworkers have been performing some visits digitally through video conferencing and phone applications.

DFCS caseworkers try to meet with a child in foster care once a month.

In cases where DFCS caseworkers do need to go in-person and when there are new reports of abuse or neglect, there are some screening procedures with the family regarding COVID-19 exposure.

“If we’re unable to do that, we go to the home with some very strict guidelines in place, Campolong said. “We knock on the door, step back, try to stay back and have conversations (and) ask those same questions around exposure. If we feel like it’s OK to enter, we do that and still practice social distancing of 6 feet apart.” 

Many of the typical deadlines in juvenile court have been pushed back 30 days, thanks to the emergency order.

Janet Walden, the executive director of the Hall-Dawson Court-Appointed Special Advocates, sent a memo regarding changes in procedures.

While an attorney represents the child’s wishes in dependency cases, the CASA independently works to determine what the best living situation would be for the child.

Walden asked the organization’s volunteers to limit visiting children in person but to increase contact through texting, phone calls or video conferencing.

“We know this is a time where there aren’t as many eyes on the kids when they’re not in school. Educators are the No. 1 referral source to DFCS,” Walden said.

Hall County Schools’ director of student services Tamara Etterling said though school has changed for students, the process for school employees as mandated reporters has not.

“District team members are still engaging students and working to build relationships under our school-from-home model. If there is suspicion of abuse or neglect during that engagement, a report is made,” Etterling wrote in an email.

The school district is also planning to use the school closings as a time for classified staff to take the “Stewards of Children” training. An online course was developed by the Edmondson-Telford Child Advocacy Center to help those working with children to identify signs of abuse. 

“All certified employees completed the training last year, and we are excited about taking this next step to better protect our students,” Etterling said.

Mathe said she has seen fewer cases over the past three weeks than she would compared to a normal period of time, which she attributed to mandated reporters and people who are around children — church groups, teachers, doctors, law enforcement and more — having had less contact with them.

CASA’s advocates are required to meet with their child at least once per month as they develop their report to give to Juvenile Court on what the best placement for the child may be.

Walden said advocates are checking in more often.

CASAs have helped particularly in cases where the child is placed with a relative to get kids the supplies to do their schoolwork.

One CASA volunteer Walden mentioned did physically visit the child. The CASA stood outside her car while the child stayed on the porch, and the two talked from that distance.

DFCS lobbies have been closed to the public, and signs are posted on the door for information, particularly for those who rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, which are administered by DFCS.

DFCS is working to get dropboxes at all local offices so people can leave their information that way.

While many of the Juvenile Court staff work from home, at least one clerk, one intake officer, receptionists and a judge will be available in the office.

The juvenile probation officers have adapted to reaching out to families and schools by phone to make sure students have the resources to complete their work remotely and checking if their assignments are completed.

Any child on probation completing all of their schoolwork for the week goes into a weekly drawing. The name drawn will have pizza delivered to their home on the judge’s dime.