• November 2011
  • Vol. 12, No. 8

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Judges' Benchcard Leads to Better Outcomes for Children

A new study looks at how the use of a judge's benchcard can lead to improved court practices and better outcomes for children in foster care. A benchcard is a set a guidelines, consisting of standard questions and procedures, that a judge can utilize in conducting a hearing. The CCC Preliminary Protective Hearing Benchcard Study Report: Testing a Tool for Judicial Decision-Making reports on the effectiveness of the Preliminary Protective Hearing (PPH) Benchcard that was developed as part of the Courts Catalyzing Change (CCC) project.

The CCC initiative, supported by Casey Family Programs and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, was created and launched through the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) Model Courts project. In 2009, the NCJFCJ's Permanency Planning for Children Department began a study to examine outcomes associated with judges’ use of the benchcard. For the assessment study, data were collected on more than 500 children in Los Angeles, CA, Omaha, NE, and Portland, OR. Data were gathered from case file information (both court and agency files) and from courtroom observations. Information was collected at several junctures, from placement to establishment of jurisdiction and disposition. To explore benchcard implementation effects, the study was designed to allow for several different comparisons. The information collected included demographic details, as well as information about the families involved, hearing participants, dates of case events, and details on allegations, services, and placement. Judicial officers at each site were randomly assigned to either a benchcard implementation group or a control group.

Findings of the study show that those judicial officers who used the benchcard discussed more key topics during the preliminary protective hearings than the control group. Benchcard implementation appears to be associated with substantially higher quantities and quality of discussion of key dependency topics when compared to the control group. Benchcard implementation also corresponds to an increased thoroughness of discussion and judicial inquiry, as demonstrated by the number of topics and how thoroughly they were discussed. Benchcard use also was associated with more family placements—placement with a charged parent, with a noncharged parent, or with a relative—at the initial hearing and even more again at adjudication when comparing the same judges before and after benchcard implementation. Benchcard use also was associated with fewer children placed in nonrelative foster care at the initial hearing and even fewer again at adjudication. Similarly, the percentage of children who were reunified with the charged parent at the initial hearing and at the adjudication hearing increased after Benchcard implementation.

The full report is available on the NCJFCJ website:

http://www.ncjfcj.org/images/stories/dept/publications/ncjfcj%20benchcard%20study%20final.pdf (1.50 MB)

Also find the PPH benchcard on the website:

http://www.ncjfcj.org/images/stories/dept/ppcd/CCC/ccc%20bench%20card%20inserts_web.pdf (78 KB)

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