Shasta County Local Commission Making Big Changes with Limited Resources

September-October 2010

When Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn't matter who gets the credit," he had no idea that it would turn out to be a perfect description of the Blue Ribbon Committee of Shasta County, formed after the 2008 statewide Blue Ribbon Commission-sponsored summit for local county teams.

If you talk to current Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Gregory Gaul, you'll hear that credit for the local commission's success goes to Senior Deputy County Counsel, Debra Barriger, "for spearheading the effort and keeping us on track" . . . or to Maxine Wayda, Deputy Director of Children's Services, for making significant changes to the dependency court process . . . or to Judge Molly Bigelow, for being at the helm in the beginning. But if you talk to Debra Barriger you'll hear, "I'm just a cheerleader," credit goes to Judge Molly Bigelow for leading a team to the 2008 summit . . . or to Judge Gaul who is doing such great work . . . or to the volunteer mentor parents who are helping families through the process . . . or to Karen Schaefer, director of the newly launched CASA program. And so on. But there is no dispute that formation of the local commission has made a big difference for Shasta County's children and families in the child welfare system.

In its first two years of operation, the local commission can already boast several significant accomplishments (if it was inclined to boast, which it is not). For example, it:

  • Helped launch a local Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program through the Northern Valley Catholic Social Services. This new CASA has already trained 22 volunteers and at least 14 of them have been assigned to a case;
  • Arranged a special training on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) presented by attorneys from the Administrative Office of the Courts;
  • Established a subcommittee to work on meaningful participation of children, parents, caregivers and other in court process, which:
    • Identified and addressed systemic barriers to meaningful participation and recommended that the committee: produce an informational video for parents on the court process; establish separate calendars for individuals with disabilities; hold orientations for foster and biological parents; produce informational fliers; provide assistance with transportation to and from court; provide youth with written reports; increase participation of the parent leadership; and recruit volunteers to staff child-friendly activities in the waiting room;
    • Established the monthly Brown Bag Training program to increase the understanding of services and court processes. So far the topics covered include drug and alcohol programs, domestic violence programs, group home placements for children, visitation, and peer quality case review;
    • Enhanced judicial involvement in court processes for foster youth and parents;
    • Increased parent participation in the Parent Leadership Team and the Blue Ribbon Committee efforts.
  • Established a subcommittee to work on exchanging data and other information among courts, agencies and others, which:
    • Drafted a new written procedure for processing requests for confidential juvenile records;
    • Clarified social worker authority to obtain records and obtain authorized treatment; and
    • Developed and implemented modified Findings and Orders to permit the exchange of information while maintaining confidentiality. (See modified findings and orders)
  • Increased communication and cooperation between the attorneys, social services, and the court; and
  • Engaged community participation in the juvenile court processes through its Parent Leadership Team and its outreach to the community to increase awareness of children in foster care.

According to Judge Gaul, much of the success of the local commission is due to the collaborative court approach that grew out of its work. All of the attorneys and social services staff are active in the process and work together before hearings to ensure that any road blocks are identified and other issues can be resolved in advance. Parents get a good return from their participation in the process, and there is good communication among all of the agencies involved in the juvenile court processes. He compliments the active participation of social services, noting that it has moved from having two court officers to having three, who make sure that things are getting done on time, and it staffs each of the local commission subcommittees.

Judge Gaul's focus is on the families—he wants social workers to spend more time with the families and is committed to making hearings meaningful for all participants. He uses a special computer template created and refined by the Shasta County juvenile court judges to take case notes on every case and updates the notes at each hearing so that he really gets to know the children and families that come before him. (For more information on the template, contact liaison Laura Pedicini.) Judge Gaul credits the local commission process for getting all of the child welfare partners talking with each other and taking it seriously—"It's really made a huge difference."

County counsel Debra Barriger agrees that the local commission has improved the processes, particularly case communication among participants, access to more timely reports, and the involvement of non-court personnel (such as parent mentors and volunteers to bring toys and activities for children while they are waiting for hearings). According to Barriger, one key difference since the inception of the local commission that has helped tremendously is judicial ownership through standing orders, the involvement of court administration, and other committed engagement in the process. She is enthusiastic about a new initiative the team is supporting: the Positive Parenting Program (Triple P) that front loads prevention services for at-risk families. She credits the AOC liaisons and trainings for support that has enabled the local commission to get and adapt the best practices from other counties without the need to duplicate resources.

Going forward, the local commission has activated two additional subcommittees: one on raising the visibility and public understanding of foster care issues in the community and one on ensuring that necessary services are available. It also plans to develop an orientation video for parents and to work actively to engage law enforcement in the committee.

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“Foster Care Reform Update: A Briefing for County and Statewide Collaborations” is produced by the AOC Center for Families, Children, & the Courts. Questions, comments, or article ideas should be directed to Chris Cleary. All other questions and requests for subscriptions may be directed to Carolynn Bernabe at 415-865-7556.

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