There are some counties in California that recognized well before the Blue Ribbon Commission issued its recommendations that collaboration between the court and its child welfare partners made good sense for the court, its partners, and especially for the families and children in the foster care system. San Francisco is one of those counties, and its child welfare partners have been collaborating for more than 16 years as the Dependency Administration Committee. The court, Children and Family Services, attorneys representing children and parents, CASA, mediation services, HEY (an organization for former foster youth), and others meet regularly to monitor and improve the local dependency and foster care systems. The collaboration began under the leadership of Judge Donna Hitchens and has continued with the active and enthusiastic support of both the court and its agency and organizational partners.
Some current initiatives that may be of interest to other local commissions include the following:
Zero to Three
This program, led by Judge Donna Hitchens, targets children aged 0-3 in San Francisco foster homes or in-home with parents in residential treatment. The program has now been active for just over a year and has more than doubled the original target enrollment of 20. Of great interest is the fact that of 38 families in the program, 21 of the mothers were former foster children. This program seeks to break that cycle. It provides very intense, multidisciplinary care for the children enrolled. Each child is thoroughly assessed and appropriate services are ordered to address whatever needs are indentified. The court also works with the parents, but the children are the main focus. In the past, a thorough assessment often took a few months; in Zero to Three the children are evaluated and a follow-up report is provided within two weeks. A team of professionals, including pediatricians, mental health providers, social workers, substance abuse specialists, and others meet to discuss each child every two weeks. Mary O'Grady, a 23-year veteran at the Department of Social Services, is the community coordinator of the program and periodically provides the court with reports documenting the status and progress of each child. The potential for the program to serve as an early assessment and early engagement with parents tool, leading to earlier permanency, is very promising.
Dependency Drug Court
San Francisco recently celebrated the two-year anniversary of its Dependency Drug Court. There are currently more than 30 participants, almost a third of whom are fathers including several single parent dads who have children placed with them in residential treatment. The court has included some incarcerated parents and some parents of children who are in long-term placements. The court meets twice a month, but Commissioner Catherine Lyons is hoping to expand to weekly sessions. The treatment team includes representatives from social services, the parent's counselor/treatment team, case managers from Homeless Prenatal Project, and occasionally representatives from local drug programs, like Walden House. San Francisco emphasizes a supportive, nurturing environment where each case is discussed intensively with team members during a case conference prior to the calendar. The court reports very positive outcomes.
Voluntary Service Cases
San Francisco has an impressive number of voluntary service cases-cases where the family is at-risk of coming into the system, but voluntarily gets involved with social services as a preventive measure. Debby Jeter from the Human Services Agency explained that research strongly suggests that families will be more successful in making changes if the child welfare worker is able to develop a good relationship with the family. As a result, they focus on building relationships with families before court involvement becomes necessary.
A Voice in Court
Like many other small counties, many of San Francisco's foster children are placed out of the county. This poses a problem for the court and its partners who are responsible for the welfare of the children while they are in foster care placement. Judge Hitchens is hoping to launch a SKYPE program where group homes will have SKYPE and the court will also have SKYPE capability so that the court can check in on children in group home placements, answer their questions, and see how they are doing. She won't talk to them about case specific issues, but will be able to address issues like "How are things in the group home? Has your attorney been in touch with you? Has your social worker been in touch?" The court is currently working to have SKYPE available in the courtroom so more children can participate in their court hearings. They also want to make SKYPE available to out-of-state parents and parents serving overseas in the military.