It is important to place The National Evaluation of the Court Improvement Program within the context of child welfare and court reform. The role of the courts in overseeing dependency cases was formalized in federal law in 1980. Following-up on federal compliance reviews checking to ensure that courts throughout the country were periodically hearing these cases, efforts were undertaken to improve the consistency and quality of judicial oversight and dependency hearings. The creation of CIP in 1993 was a central part of this improvement process. Today, courts and child welfare agencies continue to seek ways to improve the tasks and activities they share and adjust their respective roles. This study will help inform the ongoing process of reform.
The following timeline provides an overview of key court reform events that occurred during the last 25 years. As shown, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (PL 96-272) first required that court hearings of child dependency cases be convened on a periodic basis. Additionally, state courts were required to assess the "reasonableness" of efforts to: 1) prevent placement from occurring; and 2) reunify children with their parent(s) once placement had occurred. PL 96-272 established deadlines for a permanent plan to be developed for each child placed in care, and required that certain procedural safeguards occur with respect to the child's placement and visitation with parents and siblings.
Although PL 96-272 clarified that courts were to oversee key decisions and activities for cases involving children placed in state custody, the field became aware that too often these hearings were pro forma and perfunctory. Advocacy and public interest groups pushed for improvement and federal funding to facilitate continued reform.
Thirteen years after passage of PL 96-272, the combined efforts of the child welfare and court reform fields were rewarded with the passage of the Family Preservation and Family Support (FP/FS) provisions contained in the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1993 (PL 103-66). The Act established a new subpart 2 under title IV-B of the Social Security Act - the Child and Family Services Program, creating new federal funding for child welfare preventive services. Today, it is known as the Promoting Safe and Stable Families (PSSF) program.
These same provisions also created the Court Improvement Program (CIP), providing federal funding for state courts to assess their processes for reviewing and hearing dependency cases, undertaking strategic planning to formulate recommendations for reforming these processes, and implementing these recommendations.
Following up on this success, key organizations that advocated for the establishment of CIP worked to support state court reform activities undertaken with this source of funding. Under the auspices of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), the Resource Guidelines, Improving Court Practice in Child Abuse & Neglect Cases was published in 1995. The Resource Guidelines were developed in consultation with representatives of the ABA, the NCSC, and the Conference of Chief Justices. A full decade following publication, today the field continues to regard the Resource Guidelines as the seminal guidebook for defining the essential elements of properly conducted hearings.
Just two years after the Resource Guidelines were published, Congress again passed landmark child welfare legislation. Among the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (PL 105-89 or ASFA) legislative provisions, three were especially important to the field of dependency court reform and, by extension, CIP. Specifically, with the intent of:
Limiting the amount of time a child could spend in out-of-home care, the law directed that courts should move to terminate parental rights for cases in care continuously for 15 of the last 22 months, unless a compelling case could be made to maintain the child in foster care. As a result, states undertook one-time assessments of all children in care in order to determine those that could be moved to a permanent placement. Thereafter, states worked to track the length of time each child was in care to help ensure these timeframes were met.
Meeting the newly-established deadline for achieving child permanency and tightening court oversight of cases in out-of-home care, the law directed states to hold permanency hearings 12 months following placement rather than by month 18 as specified in 1980 by PL 96-272. As a result, states reworked their hearing timeframes through state legislation, if they had not already done so prior to the passage of ASFA.
Establishing national standards against which state child welfare systems and practices could be assessed, the law directed the Secretary of HHS to develop a set of outcome measures. Eventually, this process resulted in the establishment of defined outcomes related to the achievement of child safety, timely permanency, and child well-being against which states are assessed through ongoing data reporting and federal reviews. Courts are asked to participate in the development of program improvement plans resulting from these reviews and help develop other special initiatives. Given the growing importance of courts in child welfare cases, increasingly state child welfare agencies are collaborating with courts in a number of ways to help ensure that the outcomes described below are met.
Safety: Children are protected from abuse/neglect; they are maintained in their home, whenever possible and appropriate.
Permanency: Children have permanency and stability in their living situation; the continuity of family relationships and connections is preserved for children.
Child and Family Well-being: Families have enhanced capacity to provide for their children's needs; children receive appropriate services to meet their educational needs; and children receive adequate services to meet their physical and mental health needs.
HHS encouraged the integration of dependency court reform with other child welfare improvement efforts guided by the ASFA-established outcomes. Through federal CIP program guidance, the Children's Bureau required states to target ASFA outcomes defined in their Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSRs) within their CIP reform efforts. Specifically, in order to receive CIP funding, states were required to:
Develop a strategic plan including:
A reassessment of the ability of court proceedings to meet ASFA outcomes
Addressing relevant findings from federal Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSRs) reviews of state child welfare, foster care, and adoption services
Implement needed improvements and reforms
Continue to collaborate with relevant state and community organizations
Continue to report annually on progress to the Children's Bureau.
Approximately a decade after the establishment of CIP, the Children's Bureau sought to evaluate the program's impact. In 2001, an evaluability assessment (EA) was commissioned to determine how CIP could best be evaluated. To do this, the EA study team:
Reviewed and analyzed the state CIP reports submitted to HHS for FYs 2000 and 2001 and developed a classification system for organizing activities and reforms undertaken with CIP funding. The evaluators conducted follow-up telephone calls with state CIP directors. The goal of this activity was to provide information on the full range of (or universe) of court reform efforts undertaken across the country.
Consulted with national experts through the formation of a work group composed of organizations that led court reform efforts, CIP administrators, judicial officials, child welfare administrators, and researchers. The EA consulted the group on contextual issues, methodological design, and preliminary findings. The group was convened twice during the project and reviewed all deliverables created under the project.
Conducted on-site visits to nine sites across the country to interview a wide range of court and child welfare officials, administrators, staff, and participants to gain an in-depth understanding of reform efforts and local context and to assess the evaluability of reform efforts that received CIP funding.
The EA recommended that the evaluation framework for CIP reflect the ASFA-established outcomes of the timely achievement of permanency while maintaining child safety. The consideration of outcomes related to child well-being was also encouraged. The EA recommended that a national evaluation have multiple components to provide a full, complete, and inclusive assessment of CIP and its accomplishments. Building on this effort, the Children's Bureau commissioned The National Evaluation of the CIP beginning September 2004.