Austin Model Court

Brief History

The Austin Model Court for Children and Families joined the project in 2008.  The Model Court is led by Judge Darlene Byrne of the 126th District Court of Travis County.  In addition, an Executive Committee meets monthly and its members include judges hearing child protection and juvenile justice cases, representatives from the county district attorney’s office, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the University of Texas School of Law Children’s Rights Clinic, private attorneys, children’s attorneys, and parents attorneys.  In addition, the Model Court includes a broader, multidisciplinary Collaborative Council which meets three times each year and includes representatives of the community, service providers for children and families, state and local agencies working with children and youth, the state Court Improvement Project (CIP), legislative advocates, and others who are interested in improving outcomes for children and families.

Leadership

Current Lead Judge:  Judge Darlene Byrne

Court website - http://www.co.travis.tx.us/courts/civil/district/126.asp

Successfully Implemented Signature Best Practices

1.  Performance Measurement

The Model Court has worked hard to build more capacity to collect data on the nine key performance measures and model court initiatives.  This data is regularly shared at meetings.  The Model Court has collected data on its initiatives such as early appointment of counsel, including calculating the cost-benefit and placement outcomes of cases in the pilot test.  The Model Court hosted two cross-site visits with the Seattle Model Court and the Prince George’s County Model Court related to collecting and tracking performance measurement. 

2.  Paternity Testing & Father Engagement

The primary objective of this goal is to assure a quick and accurate determination of paternity.  The following activities and accomplishments have been completed:

●      Reduced time from court order to test results by making testing available in a location convenient to the courthouse

○      2010 average time: 3.8 months

○      Project average time: 32.09 days

●      Written project protocols to assure sustainability

●      Written best practices for excluded paternity

●      Developed interagency relationships

●      Trained staff and agency partners as part of the Model Court’s regular Brown Bag series

In the next phase of this project, the Austin Model Court plans to determine the impact the revised process has on placements and case outcomes (i.e., are children placed with fathers or paternal relatives more frequently, are children reunified more frequently). 

Additional Best Practices and Initiatives Implemented

Court performance measures

Data tracking of initiatives

Crossover Youth Practice Model

One family-one judge

Family search and engagement

Trauma-informed system of care training

Creation of county offices of children's and parent's representation

Transition court for older youth

Current Goals

NATIONAL GOAL:  Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) Compliance & Tribal Engagement

The Model Court has renewed attention to inquiring about Indian Heritage.  Lead Judge Byrne recently gave a CLE presentation to members of the Collaborative Council on the history of ICWA.  The Model Court periodically generates a list of those who self-identify Indian heritage and provides this to the district attorney to ensure that their client, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, is following the law.  When ICWA is determined to be applicable in a case, efforts are made to ensure compliance and accommodate tribal participation by telephonic appearance.

STATE GOAL:  Statewide Implementation of Best Practices

In Texas, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has a pre-petition filing option to get parents to comply with services.  This is known as Court Ordered Services (COS).  It is typically used for cases in which children are placed out of the home on a voluntary placement agreement and parents need an additional push to get engaged in services.  Unlike cases in which the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has filed a formal petition, COS cases currently have no statutory hearing requirements or deadlines.  Model Court data shows that COS cases are set for hearings at a variety of intervals and the length of these cases can vary.  Without hearing deadlines driving cases to resolution, COS cases linger in the system.  Judges currently have no recommended practices on how to resolve COS cases.  A COS Pilot Project is underway to develop a set of recommended practices for handling COS cases.  Any changes in process or practice will be studied to determine the value of these practices as they are implemented.  The Model Court has collected data on the characteristics of COS cases, the timeframe for completion, number of hearings, case completion, and the services provided to parents.  This information will be compared to completion rates for cases following the implementation of a structured COS process. 

LOCAL GOAL:  Child Well-Being on Education

The Model Court has undertaken a pilot project to address some of the school-related challenges facing youth in the child welfare system, including timely enrollment and transfer of records between schools; early assessment of unmet academic and extracurricular needs; ensuring the accurate and timely flow of information to all relevant parties; and credit recovery.  The pilot will be limited to no more than twenty students who will be enrolled in Austin Independent School District (AISD) middle and high schools following their initial contact with the dependency court. Students selected for the project will receive early appointment of specially trained court appointed special advocates (CASA) to provide additional oversight during the many important school-related transitions that occur in the first few days and weeks after a child comes into care.  In addition to the Model Court and CASA, key stakeholders in the project include AISD and Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The pilot project includes plans for data collection and an evaluation at the pilot’s completion.

Through this effort the Model Court is furthering the statewide implementation of procedures outlined by the Supreme Court of Texas Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families and the Texas Education Agency as part of a collaborative grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  The Supreme Court Commission published a report, The Texas Blueprint: Transforming Education Outcomes for Children and Youth in Foster Care.  Members of the Model Court Collaborative Council are part of the statewide Education Committee, along with past NCJFCJ president, Judge Patricia Macias.

Courts Catalyzing Change (CCC): Reducing Disproportionality and Disparities

Members of the Disproportionality Subcommittee act as liaisons to the other goal related subcommittees to ensure that these committees are discussing the impact that policies and practices have on children of color and to make recommendations for incorporating cultural responsiveness into the work.