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Contents:

Introduction

September 2005, Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice John V. Hendry, the Director of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHSS), the Nebraska State Court Administrator, the Nebraska Court Improvement Project Director and others, attended a nationwide summit in Minnesota, entitled Changing Lives By Changing Systems: National Judicial Leadership Summit for the Protection of Children. The main objective of the leaders behind the nationwide summit was to encourage other states to improve court oversight of cases to reduce delays in order to ensure that children are placed safely and permanently in a timely manner.

At the nationwide summit, the Nebraska leaders, led by Chief Justice Hendry, created a Nebraska State Court Action Plan designed to address the objectives of the summit. The first goal was to induce statewide implementation of best court practices based on the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) Resource Guidelines. This goal would be accomplished through a statewide summit.

The 2006 Nebraska Children's Summit Improving the Court System for Abuse/Neglect and Foster Care Children was held on September 25-27, 2006, in Nebraska City, and was attended by over 200 stakeholders in the abuse/neglect court system, including Chief Justice John Hendry, Chief Justice Designate Michael Heavican, Governor Dave Heineman, and:

  • All judges with juvenile court jurisdiction
  • HHSS Administrators, Supervisors and workers
  • Parents’ attorneys
  • County Attorneys
  • Guardians ad Litem (GALs)
  • CASAs (Court Appointed Special Advocates)
  • FCRB (Foster Care Review Board) members

Several national and Nebraska speakers addressed pertinent abuse/neglect issues, such as family drug treatment courts, family group conferencing and mediation, reasonable efforts and Title IV-E, and the Resource Guidelines. The local teams were also able to meet at several points during the Summit to discuss their implementation of best practices.

On September 27, 2006, the participants of the Summit voted for the new name of this project: Through the Eyes of the Child Initiative.

At the conclusion of the Summit, Chief Justice Hendry directed the teams to return to their communities to develop their collaborative teams and begin implementing the best practices from the Resource Guidelines. Chief Justice Designate Michael Heavican echoed those sentiments and voiced his full support for the Initiative.

Roles of the Key Players

CHIEF JUSTICE
The Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice is the overseer of the Through the Eyes of the Child Initiative. The Chief Justice will protect the vision of the Initiative and provide direction to its members to ensure that the goals and objectives continue to be pursued. On October 2, 2006, Michael Heavican took the oath of office to become the Nebraska Supreme Court’s Chief Justice.

PROJECT CHAIR 
The project chair is a judge with juvenile court jurisdiction appointed by the Chief Justice. The project chair acts as primary advisor to the Chief Justice, and is the face of the Initiative to the public and other entities. The project chair is a consultant for local lead judges and teams, and will be the primary liaison with other organizations. Judge Lawrence Gendler has been appointed as project chair.

LEAD JUDGE
Each local team has designated a lead judge. The lead judge leads local progress, and corresponds regularly with the project chair for support and consultation. Local lead judges will attend lead judges meetings on a bi-annual basis. The lead judges are the motivators for positive systems change from within their team and by their team members.

TEAM COORDINATOR
Each local team has designated a team coordinator. The team coordinator assists the lead judge in arranging meetings, preparing and distributing agendas, and keeping accurate minutes. The team coordinator maintains active communication with all team members, and will provide written quarterly progress reports to state staff. The team coordinator is in direct and regular correspondence with state staff, and relays all pertinent news and information to the team members.

Leaders In the Initiative

A principle tenet of the Through the Eyes of the Child Initiative is that Nebraska’s judges must take an active leadership role in improving the court process in child protection cases. Judges have enormous respect from the community and court stakeholders, as well as great responsibility in the judicial system. Judges have the greatest ability to improve the lives of foster children through systems change and procedural improvements within their courts.

On September 20, 2006, the Nebraska Supreme Court appointed the Honorable Larry Gendler, a judge in the Separate Juvenile Court of Sarpy County, as Project Chair of the Initiative. In conjunction with Chief Justice Michael Heavican, Judge Gendler will lead the Initiative and maintain close ties with the lead judges.

The following judges have elected to be lead judges for their local teams:

  • Hon. Steve Timm - 1st District Team
  • Hon. Bob O'Neal - Sarpy County Team and Otoe County Team
  • Hon. John Steinheider - Cass County Team
  • Hon. Roger Heideman - Lancaster County Team
  • Hon. Wadie Thomas and Hon. Chris Kelly - Omaha Team
  • Hon. Patrick McDermott - 5th District - Team 1
  • Hon. Curtis Evans - 5th District - Team 2
  • Hon. Kenneth Vampola - 6th District - Team 1 (Fremont)
  • Hon. Kurt Rager - 6th District - Team 2 (S. Sioux City)
  • Hon. Ross Stoffer - 7th District Team
  • Hon. James Orr - 8th District - Team 1 (Valentine)
  • Hon. Alan Brodbeck - 8th District - Team 2 (O'Neill)
  • Hon. Gary Washburn - 8th District - Team 3 (Custer)
  • Hon. Philip Martin - 9th District - Hall County Team
  • Hon. Gerald Jorgensen - 9th District - Buffalo County Team
  • Hon. Michael Offner - 10th District - Team 1
  • Hon. Jack Ott - 10th District - Adams County
  • Hon. Bob Ide - 10th District - West End
  • Hon. Carlton Clark - 11th District - Team 1(Lexington)
  • Hon. Edward Steenburg - 11th District - Team 2 (Ogallala)
  • Hon. Anne Paine - 11th District - Team 3 (Red Willow)
  • Hon. Kent Florom - 11th District - Team 4 (North Platte)
  • Hon. Russell Harford - 12th District - Team 1(northern Panhandle)
  • Hon. Randin Roland - 12th District - Team 2 (southern Panhandle)
  • Hon. James Worden - 12th District - Scottsbluff Team

The Resource Guidelines

The Resource Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Child Abuse & Neglect Cases was published by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. It has become a national standard for best practices in abuse/neglect court proceedings. The Resource Guidelines are the product of years of study of multiple court systems and observations and advice from experienced system stakeholders.

The Through the Eyes of the Child Initiative has created a County and Juvenile Court Practice Guide, which translates the best practices contained in the Resource Guidelines to a grid-like framework for local teams. The local teams will use the Practice Guide in developing their Action Plan, which is a compilation of best practices the team intends to focus on adopting in the upcoming year.

The best practices contained in the Resource Guidelines will also provide the basis for county and district-wide assessments to be conducted across Nebraska. The purpose of these assessments will be to measure the degree of adherence to the best practices by locality.

Statewide Action

The Through the Eyes of the Child Initiative is guided on the state level by the Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice, the project chair, and the local lead judges. Although the main structure is a network of local teams working to introduce best practices into their local court systems, the Initiative also has a state-level structure that assists the local teams in their implementation of best practices and maintains a consistent and productive system of collaboration. At the behest of the Chief Justice and project chair, state staff provide technical assistance to the local groups, develop resources for the local teams (which will include, inter alia, an interactive website, resource manuals, and template order forms), and work on a statewide basis to address concerns within the child protection court system.

The lead judges meet on a bi-annual basis with the project chair and state staff to address needs and concerns. The Initiative also hosts annual regional conferences in which team members will discuss problems and successes of their local teams, receive training, and address statewide plans for improvement and better collaboration. The regional conferences are open to all team members within that region, and its multi- disciplinary training will be specific to that region’s needs.

Through the use of JUSTICE, the court data system, and Fostering Court Improvement, which analyzes DHHS data, data is being provided to local teams to assist them in the development of their action plans.

Local Teams

There are approximately 30 local teams across Nebraska. Each team has been formed on its own initiative and has invited stakeholders of its choosing to join the team. All teams consist of a lead judge, team coordinator, and stakeholders from across the abuse/neglect court system who work well in a collaborative and can produce change in the system, which may include attorneys, social workers, guardians ad litem, school representatives, mediators, mental health and chemical dependency workers, tribal representatives, foster parents, former foster youth, CASAs, FCRB members, and community representatives.

Each local team has adopted an Action Plan, which is updated yearly in accordance with their progress. An Action Plan is a compilation of best practices from the Practice Guide that the team intends to adopt or fully comply with in the upcoming year. The number of items in the Action Plan varies considerably among the teams.

To accomplish the goals in the Action Plan, the teams meet regularly to assess progress and discuss new issues.

In addition to their collaboration as a local team, the teams also collaborate with state staff and other local teams statewide through conferences, trainings, data assessments and other activities.

Priorities

  1. Reduce the time to reunification
  2. Improve systems effectiveness with parents with substance abuse issues
  3. Improve the use of parenting time to improve permanency