Journalism as Justice for American Families

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Two brothers and their siblings during a child welfare court hearing in Indiana. Photo courtesy of Calamari Productions

Two brothers and their siblings during a child welfare court hearing in Indiana. Photo courtesy of Calamari Productions

In March, we launched a new series on our pages called ‘Hearings,” which takes readers into the little known, but enormously consequential child welfare court system. 

Across the country, attorneys and judges within these courtrooms struggle to find justice with caseloads that regularly soar into the hundreds. That is a terrifying prospect, especially when considering how severe the consequences of sub par representation can be. After all, these courts decide on whether or not to permanently sever mother from child, something insiders have long referred to as the “civil death penalty.”

Despite the clear and pressing need for the public to better understand the how this poorly understood and largely undervalued system functions, half the states in this country bar media access. While we have attended hearings in Brooklyn, Detroit, Los Angeles and Ventura County, California – Riverside and San Bernardino are trying to block our journalists’ access.

We are not alone in the belief that creating justice for children and families entangled with the child protection system will require better-supported legal representation. In December, the Children’s Bureau, a federal agency that oversees child welfare policy, quietly changed a key rule, allowing federal funds to now pay for the representation of children and parents. This could mean hundreds of millions of new funds for top-flight legal advocacy, and portends a new era of family justice in child welfare.

To ensure that this incredible opportunity is maximized, The Chronicle plans to shine a burning light on how family and dependency courts function; what obstacles attorneys and families face and the power of quality representation to change lives.

This will entail producing stories that keep pressure on states and counties to take advantage of the new federal funds. Concurrently, we will send our reporters and youth correspondents into courtrooms across the country. The stories they produce will range from news briefs to deep investigations, delivered in rich multimedia formats. We will also host “Civic Dialogues” in key cities to create broader community buy-in for sustained change. Throughout, we will partner with mainstream media outlets to amplify our work.

The anticipated impact is substantial. Intense coverage of this issue will drive increased funding for quality legal representation at the county, state and federal level.

In terms of key measures for children and families, our efforts will help reduce entries into foster care, shorten stays in care and increase “permanency,” including: reunification with parents, guardianship with kin and adoption. This focus will also direct much needed attention to the racial disproportionality rife in the system.

Simply put, this is a momentous opportunity.

You can be a part of this effort by donating to our coverage of the child welfare courts. And you can sign up for our special newsletter called “Hearings” highlighting this important work here.