II. Why Do Dependency Courts Need Their Own Emergency Preparedness Plans?

A. Why Is This an Issue?

Child abuse and neglect cases, sometimes called dependency cases, are heard in a variety of courts in the United States. Delaware, Hawaii, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, and West Virginia have specialized family courts that handle dependency cases. In other states, such as New Jersey, dependency cases are heard in family divisions within their courts of general jurisdiction. In most states, child abuse and neglect cases are heard in courts of general or limited jurisdiction.

A viable emergency preparedness program requires coordinated efforts within the dependency court, with other trial courts in the same courthouse, with dependency courts in other areas of the state or region, and with social services departments, local law enforcement, and emergency responders to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from a broad array of disruptions.

In most places, the executive branch has already developed occupant emergency plans to protect people, records, and facilities and continuity of operations plans to continue mission essential functions. Courts may already be included in those plans. The State Justice Institute (SJI) Court Emergency/Disaster Preparedness Planning Project (2005: 2), a guide for local courts, recommends an assessment that would apply to dependency courts as well. The first step is to determine:

• what emergency preparedness planning is already underway in the locale;
• how these plans affect the court; and
• what elements of court operations are not addressed in these plans and, therefore, need to be subject to the court’s own emergency-preparedness-planning effort.

When these questions are answered, the dependency court can then address the elements of court operations that are not already covered (SJI Court Emergency/Disaster Preparedness Planning Project, 2005, or the National Association for Court Management’s Business Continuity Management Mini Guide, 2006). For a dependency court, these elements will most likely involve coordination with social services agencies, guardians ad litem, and court-appointed special advocates (CASA) and these efforts need to be contained in the dependency court’s continuity of operations plan, commonly abbreviated a COOP plan.

B. Why Is This Issue Important?

Coordination is an especially important issue for dependency courts because a disaster can result in fragmented families being further separated. If an emergency or natural disaster forces an evacuation of a neighborhood, city, or county, then the biological parents may have difficulty reuniting with their children if their children were in foster care at the time of the evacuation. It took more than six months for all 5,192 children missing after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to be reunited with family members (Associated Press, 2006). Four-year-old Cortez Steward was not reunited with her mother and five siblings in Houston until March 16, 2006. The stress that the children and families had to endure while separated is unimaginable.

The issue of coordination is a complex one for dependency courts, because they need to consider the coordination of resources with other courts and agencies within their own courthouses as well as with other dependency courts and social service agencies within their state or region. By taking the time before an event occurs to figure out how the dependency court will coordinate its preparation, response, and recovery efforts with the stakeholders that are important to the court’s normal operations, the time to recovery and reunification of families may be significantly shortened than if the dependency court is not prepared. Additionally, if the dependency court can identify constraints to their intended response procedures placed on them by courthouse or local government policies, then it will be a step ahead when faced with an actual situation.


Karen Hallstrom

C. Suggestions and Considerations

Courts that hear dependency cases should coordinate their plans with other trial courts and major departments involved in court operations, all agencies housed in the courthouse, and state and local organizations whose participation in executing the emergency preparedness plan is essential.

1. Coordination within Dependency Courts

The dependency court will need to determine where and when hearings will be rescheduled. The dependency court will need to consider federal and state statutes with regard to case milestones, but depending on the severity of the emergency, it may not be able to conform to the timelines set by ASFA during its recovery period.
The courts’ response to the Red River Flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota revealed several trends that dependency courts should consider in preparing their own response to a widespread disaster. The impact of the flood included an increase in the number of child welfare cases filed with the court; the disruption of child support payments, which called for an immediate creation and implementation of a back-up system; and the need for existing child welfare cases to be adjudicated de novo due to damaged or destroyed court records (Pedeliski, 1998).

2. Coordination with Parent Court

Dependency courts should work with the court’s leadership to develop and implement an emergency preparedness program that applies to all courts and departments in the same courthouse. To ensure continuity of operations and performance of essential functions, dependency courts and other court units should integrate emergency planning within the context of the “parent” court because many of the administrative and operational functions of all court units, such as information technology, human resources and personnel, space and facilities, budget, and procurement are managed for the benefit of all courts. A dependency court staff member or judge should consider being a member of the courthouse’s security-planning committee to ensure that its unique needs are addressed either in the courthouse’s or in their own COOP plan. External stakeholders, such as the bar and child welfare agencies, must be considered in the plan because these groups often play a key role in the performance of essential functions of dependency court. Other courts and offices within the courthouse that can impact court operations, including information systems, human resources, and procurement, also need to be considered in the plan.

3. Coordination with Child Welfare and Other Social Service Agencies

Child welfare agencies also need continuity of operations plans because of the vulnerability of the children and families they serve and the mandates that regulate their services. Even during an emergency, family preservation, foster care, and protective services are programs that must be continued, which require investigations, home visits, and case monitoring. In an emergency, child welfare agencies must be able to identify special-needs clients, including medically fragile or physically impaired children, as well as adolescents participating in independent living arrangements (Children’s Bureau, 1995).

A recent GAO report (2006:15) found that 20 states and the District of Columbia, out of 37 responding states, had a written child welfare disaster plan. The 21 jurisdictions with written plans varied in the extent to which they address key program elements. Most plans had provisions for preserving essential case information, either in electronic or written form, and two-thirds of the plans contained provisions for coordinating services and sharing information within states and for providing continuing services for children under state care who may be dispersed by an emergency (GAO, 2006:21). Fewer than half of the plans contained provisions for providing in-home family services to children from other states, placing children from other states, or coordinating services and sharing information with other states.

Regardless of whether or not a child welfare COOP plan exists, the dependency court should have discussions with local social services departments so that a coordinated effort can be planned for reuniting separated families and for reuniting attorneys, social workers, dependents, and parents for timely processing of open cases. At a minimum, dependency court personnel should be aware of the social services department’s emergency and recovery procedures, including emergency contact information for the personnel who interact most frequently with the dependency court. Local guardians ad litem and CASA organizations may also be able to assist the court and social services in communicating with case parties after an emergency and coordinating a unified response to resume hearings and trials.

4. Coordination with Other Dependency Courts in the State or Geographic Region

If an emergency affects more than one county, then dependency courts should be prepared to coordinate their response and recovery procedures with those of their colleagues throughout the geographic region or even the state. Courts may be able to share resources depending on the extent of the damage to each courthouse or region’s communication and transportation infrastructure.
Dependency courts can also learn lessons from nearby dependency courts that recently experienced a disaster or emergency. For example, Dade County learned from South Carolina that they experienced an increase in incidents of domestic violence following Hurricane Hugo (Salokar, 1998).

Dependency courts may also be able to solicit the assistance of nearby CASA organizations and volunteers, social services departments, and guardians ad litem in locating and coordinating with the families that were parties to open dependency cases at the time of the emergency. Meeting with these groups to engage in dialogue about the potential assistance they could provide will enhance the timeliness of the court’s response to and recovery from an emergency.

5. State Supreme Court and Administrative Office of the Courts

The dependency court, as a trial-level court, should also coordinate with the state supreme court and administrative office of courts to ensure that state-level officials are aware of the actions and resources required from the state (such as emergency court orders, equipment, financial resources, decision-making authority, etc.) to ensure a smooth return to normal operations after an emergency.

6. Coordination with Executive Branch Agencies and First Responders

The dependency court should participate with the parent court at meetings with local government and agencies for the same reasons they participate on the courthouse’s emergency and security planning committee (FEMA, 1993). This way, the needs and special considerations of dependency courts are included in the courthouse’s dialogue with law enforcement and local government officials, including its unique position with regards to records, evidence, laws, and statutes (SJI Court Emergency/Disaster Preparedness Planning Project, 2005). Perhaps a representative of the dependency court could participate on a local emergency management agency workgroup, if one exists in its county.