Court judges, foster parents and child care specialists joined ASU faculty and students to discuss new ways of treating legal cases involving children Friday.
Held at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, the Sally Campbell Memorial Best for Babies Seminar included breakout sessions and panel discussions that addressed the need for judges and court teams to make more informed decisions regarding infant care and custody.
Judge Cindy Lederman, presiding judge of the Juvenile Court in Miami-Dade County, delivered the keynote speech, “Helping Babies From the Bench,” and shared many of her own juvenile-court experiences.
“This is the most important work that any lawyer, that any judge, can do,” she said. “It’s also extremely painful and incredibly frustrating.
We work in a place overwhelmed by human suffering.”
Decisions regarding babies are not only difficult, but also often ineffective, Lederman said.
“We’re missing the most important opportunity to help children in the child welfare system,” she said.
Lederman said judges often assume babies are resilient, and that events occurring from ages 0 to 3 will have little effect on their development.
The key to moving beyond these assumptions is to look at the research, she said.
“We’re using law and science to make better decisions to help maltreated infants and toddlers,” Lederman said. “The first three years are the most important for brain development; we can improve the software, but the hard wiring is there forever.”
Judges must also follow up on cases and evaluate the programs they order parents into, Lederman said.
Many parents receive a certificate just for attending — and not passing — court-ordered parenting programs, she said.
When she sees a parenting certificate in her court, Lederman said she tears it up.
“It’s absolutely worthless,” she said.
The goal, she said, is to stop assuming children will be in a safe and healthy environment following legal intervention.
A panel of judges and courtroom officials emphasized the need for judges, lawyers and child care professionals to work toward a common goal.
Jennifer Jordan, Juvenile Division Chief for Yavapai County, said courtroom decisions about children need to be immediate.
“You can’t wait until six months after if a child has developmental needs,” she said.
Judge Richard Weiss, presiding juvenile judge for the Mohave County Superior Court, said the key to taking on children’s cases is to listen to and learn from the community.
“With a common purpose, we can enrich children’s lives,” he said.
An audience of parents and child care professionals continually applauded the panel.
Nisa Cortes, a family and human development junior, said the audience’s enthusiasm indicates the community’s call for more courtroom awa
reness of children’s issues.
Working as an assistant in a child care facility, she said she routinely sees that need reflected in children.
“We’ve had a third more reported cases of abuse this year,” she said.
“We see so much trauma, and we see so many things that are avoidable.”
Programs like the Best for Babies seminar help to join the work of those on children’s cases, she said.
“I really want to thank these teams. There’s not enough people doing what they’re doing,” Cortes said.
Paul Schiff Berman, dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, said the seminar reinforces the school’s mission to train modern, socially conscious lawyers.
“There is a tremendous need and opportunity for us to be of service to this community,” he said.
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