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VOL. 129 | NO. 137 | Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Juvenile Court Reform Moves to Child Welfare Cases

By Bill Dries

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(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

For the last two years, much of the attention in Juvenile Court reforms has been on delinquent children who come to the court for their actions.

But this fall, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges will begin an examination of its child welfare program – the reason that most children come to the court.

The nonprofit council, now working with the court on school-based interventions with juveniles, has selected Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court as one of eight courts in the nation where it will establish a new child welfare program.

The work starts in September with an examination of what the court currently does in the child welfare area, said Larry Scroggs, chief administrative officer of the court.

“They do sort of an assessment of your current processes,” he said. “They try to get a good overall view. Usually it involves an improvement plan or recommendations for some changes that they feel would be better.”

Scroggs estimates child welfare cases, also known as “dependency and neglect” cases, outnumber by two or three to one the delinquency cases where juveniles are brought to the court because of something they are accused of doing.

The new look at child welfare proceedings could involve taking into consideration such concepts as adolescent brain development and similar factors.

“There are various stages where decisions made for a very young child may not be the best decisions later when the child is sub-teen or mid-adolescence,” Scroggs said. “It’s heavily based on expertise that has been developed.”

Any kind of comprehensive review will also likely involve the state Department of Children’s Services and foster care providers as well as the dilemma of how to act in the best interest of a child who is about to “age out” of foster care when they turn 18.

“The state is trying to put things in place that helps them acclimate to the adult world, and that’s a big adjustment for an 18-year-old,” he added. “It’s recognizing that there are some children that are not going to be adopted for various reasons and they end up in permanent foster care status. Usually these are older kids … but it’s not as likely that they will be adopted.”

There are more agencies at the table to make those kind of decisions, and Scroggs said the process in dependency and neglect cases moves more slowly than delinquency cases as a result.

Meanwhile, a hearing set for Wednesday on a Chancery Court lawsuit challenging the system of Juvenile Court magistrates was postponed for the time being.

Four citizens and Jane Does and John Does filed the lawsuit July 1 against Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court seeking a temporary injunction at the outset to stop the magistrates, appointed by the elected Juvenile Court judge, from sitting as special judges to hear and decide matters.

The suit also includes a request that the Tennessee Supreme Court appoint a senior judge to preside over Juvenile Court “due to the continued absence or inability of the elected judge to fulfill his official responsibilities and duties.”

The lawsuit asserts that those who come before the court “have a constitutional and statutory right to have their matters heard by an elected judge.”

“The Juvenile Court magistrates are neither elected by the voters nor appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court to sit as special judges, nor qualified or authorized to do so by the statutes and rule of law in Tennessee pertinent to special or substitute judges,” the lawsuit adds. “Petitioners assert there is no statute or Supreme Court rule that allows the elected judge to abdicate his responsibilities at will and transfer his duties on a daily basis to his magistrates.”

The system of magistrates was created by the late Judge Kenneth Turner, who was not an attorney, during a 40-year tenure in which Turner appointed attorneys as referees or magistrates.

His successor and the outgoing Juvenile Court judge, Curtis Person Jr., who is an attorney, continued the system of magistrates when elected in 2006 and filed suit against the Shelby County Commission when the commission tried to create new Juvenile Court judgeships to replace the magistrate system shortly after his election.

Person won the legal fight, also arguing that the majority Democratic commission was politically motivated and that having more than one Juvenile Court judge would create “chaos” in the court’s matters.

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