Iowa Children’s Justice Summit Youth panels reveal opportunities for improvement

The goal of the 2013 Summit was to identify and promote small changes that can make a big difference in the lives of children and families involved in Iowa’s child welfare system. Day two of the event focused on improving policy and practice for older youth transitioning from foster care. Approximately 450 people, many participating as part of local multi-disciplinary teams, attended the conference.

Judges, attorneys, foster parents, youth service providers, and other child welfare and juvenile justice professionals attending the Summit had the opportunity to hear directly from young people who had experienced Iowa’s foster care system. Six members of the Youth Advocacy Team (a partnership between the Youth Policy Institute of Iowa’s Youth Advisory Board, InSight, and Iowa’s Foster Care Youth Council, AMP) drew from their personal experience to offer honest assessments and practical advice for improving the system.

Their experience in court was the focus of one of two workshops led by the young people, who shared a range of assessments of their interactions with the judicial system. A good relationship with their attorney or guardian ad litem (GAL) was identified by the presenters as key to a positive court experience. Attorneys who took time to prepare their young clients for court by clearly explaining the proceedings, roles of the various players, and the decisions that could be made, were credited by the youth as making the courtroom experience much less intimidating. Being given the opportunity by the judge to share their views in court was also highly valued by the young people.

Things identified by the panelists that made court less positive were the use of jargon, the perception that courtroom decisions were a foregone conclusion, and insufficient attention given to preparing and debriefing with the youth.

“Court was too much like a meeting,” asserted Steve Miller. “It was confusing and rigid, and I was nervous and unsure what was going to happen.”

In a second workshop, young people discussed ways to help youth better advocate for themselves. Even if given the opportunity to share their wants and needs, many youth in foster care struggle to express their views. The presenters drew from their own experiences to suggest strategies that professionals could put into practice to support and encourage youth to effectively participate in their own case planning.

The young people also discussed what it takes to build positive life-long relationships and successfully transition to adulthood.

This workshop, which was facilitated as a small group discussion, led to a lively conversation among the presenters and the audience of judges, attorneys, social workers, and others.

Among the specific recommendations made by the young people were:

  • Involve youth in all decisions about their case;
  • Create a youth-friendly environment in the courtroom so that young people feel comfortable asking questions and sharing responses;
  • Provide the opportunity for supportive adults in the courtroom to understand the wants and needs of the young people;
  • Anticipate that youth will change their minds and know that their goals and plan will likely change over time, which is developmentally normal.