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NACC and Partners Urge Support for the COURTS Act

Wednesday, March 4, 2020  
Posted by: Allison Green
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NACC and our partners urge Congress to pass the Continuation of Useful Resources to States (COURTS) Act.  This bipartisan, federal legislation would provide an important technical fix for Court Improvement Program (CIP) funding that supports child welfare court training and improvements. Read our joint request below and then contact your Senator and Representative and request their support.  We are targeting advocacy to members of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means Committees – find your member here

 

The child welfare legal community strongly urges congressional leaders to pass the Continuing of Useful Resources to States (COURTS) Act (S. 2587, H.R. 4602), which would reauthorize critical funds to help state courts address child welfare cases.

 

Background

In 1993, Congress enacted the State Court Improvement Program (CIP) as bi-partisan legislation designed to improve the legal processes in the child welfare system, promote better outcomes for children and families, and enhance collaboration between the courts, child welfare agencies, and tribes. Congress initially authorized $10 million mandatory funding per year for the program. Thirteen years later, in 2006, Congress authorized two additional CIP grants at $10 million each to support data collection and analysis and training and education. As a result, the program has been budgeted at $30 million per year, divided across all fifty states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

 

The CIP grants are the only direct child welfare-related federal funds that state courts receive. The funding is distributed to the highest court in each state, which receives a base amount of $255,000, with additional funding based on the state’s child population. These flexible funds are essential in enabling courts to implement federal legislation and policy, particularly related to training judges, court personnel, and attorneys on federal laws and regulations and to ensuring case processing timelines and monitoring court performance. State courts have combined the CIP funds with state and local dollars, creating a synergy among judicial, executive and private resources, which has resulted in broad changes in how state courts handle child abuse and neglect cases.

 

In 2018, the Family First Prevention Services Act (P.L. 115-123) provided CIP reauthorization for all three grants through 2021. 

 

How Will the COURTS Act Help?

The proposed legislation reauthorizes all three grants and would repair a long-standing technical problem by ensuring the data and training grants remain part of the CIP baseline budget. Reauthorizing CIP to support state courts in the child welfare field is particularly important since many states have faced substantial increases in the number of child welfare cases in their communities in recent years. According to federal data, between 2013-2017 alone, the U.S. foster care population increased by more than 10%. Preliminary data attribute this trend to an increase in parental substance use cases, which now comprise about one-quarter of foster care entries nationwide. Increased funding is required to help address this increase in caseloads and the corresponding increase in demands on the courts. No child enters or exits foster care without a court order and CIP funds ensure resources are directed to the highest need cases and that they do not linger longer than needed. 

 

In addition, the bipartisan Family First Prevention Services Act (P.L. 115-123), was signed in 2018, ushering in a host of new requirements for state child welfare systems. These landmark changes - which impact prevention services, kinship caregiving, residential placements and more - represent a bold mandate to states to reshape child welfare systems and use court intervention as a removal of last resort. Implementation cannot and should not be accomplished by child welfare agencies alone; indeed, the legislation itself requires CIPs to train court partners on the Act’s requirements. The COURTS Act will help ensure judicial officers, attorneys, Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers and other key professionals fully understand the scope of Family First and are prepared to apply its principles in their daily case practice.

 

In addition to prior support for the COURTS Act, the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators have adopted a resolution in support of increased CIP funding based on these growing demands on the child welfare court system. Specifically, the Chief Justices and Court Administrators noted that increasing CIP funding beyond the budget set in 2006 “would accelerate positive outcomes for children and families in their state dependency court systems.” For example, funds would be used to:

 

  • Launch multidisciplinary advocacy models of child and parent legal representation, and CASA/GAL volunteers, which research has shown to expedite permanency and save costs;
  • Promote reasonable caseloads so that advocates have sufficient time to thoroughly investigate each case, talk to clients, and prepare for hearings;
  • Deliver enhanced attorney, judicial and CASA training, especially targeted to rural areas, focused on safety decision making and federal law;
  • Improve courtroom technology for training delivery, virtual participation in hearings, and digitization of case files;
  • Implement quality review, assurance, and mentoring to support recruitment and retention of high-quality legal representation, CASA volunteers, and child and family advocates;
  • Support certification of attorneys as Child Welfare Law Specialists (CWLS);
  • Improve access to meaningful data to guide local court improvements and policy decisions;
  • Develop pre-petition/ early intervention models of family advocacy that enable advocates to address root causes of child maltreatment and prevent foster care entry.

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