Ensuring Your Court is Prepared for Disasters

March 2, 2011

Floods, wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, hazardous material spills—disasters can strike anytime, anywhere. In fact, the number of annual Presidential disaster declarations has more than doubled over the last few decades.

All courts need plans to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters and other emergencies so that the essential services they provide can become operational again as soon as possible after an incident. Disaster planning for courts handling dependency or juvenile delinquency matters takes on even greater significance since children are often the most vulnerable population in disasters, and the children served by these courts are already among the most vulnerable in normal times.

Recent disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita demonstrate just how critical it is for courts with primary responsibility for cases involving children and youth to have comprehensive disaster plans in place before a disaster strikes. In the chaotic aftermath of the 2005 hurricanes, there were no systematic means for courts, child welfare and juvenile justice agencies, and other child welfare and juvenile justice professionals and advocates to share information or coordinate essential activities. Courts and agencies struggled to locate children and foster and biological families, provide critical services and supports, and ensure appropriate oversight of cases.

Several years after the devastating 2005 hurricanes, the majority of existing court-based continuity of operations plans across the nation still fail to specifically address the unique needs of juvenile and dependency courts and the children and families they serve. To the extent that a court hearing dependency or delinquency cases has a duty to ensure that the state is providing proper care to children in the state’s custody, it is imperative for the court to know whether the children it serves–who in a disaster may evacuate across state lines or be unable to communicate with teachers, therapists, doctors, social workers or probation officers–are safe and physically and emotionally healthy.

In order to ensure a coordinated, prompt, and effective disaster response, juvenile and dependency courts must develop disaster plans that specifically address both the unique needs of the court and the children and families under the court’s jurisdiction. Juvenile and dependency courts must take leadership roles in disaster planning and work collaboratively with child welfare and juvenile justice agencies and facilities, social workers, child advocates, volunteers, emergency management officials and other community and professional stakeholders to develop disaster plans that facilitate communication, coordination and oversight of dependency and delinquency cases in times of disaster.

On March 28, at the National Conference on Juvenile and Family Law in Reno, Nevada,  the Honorable Michael Nash, Presiding Judge of the Juvenile Court of the Los Angeles Superior Court, and I will be presenting on steps that judges and other juvenile and family court stakeholders can take to ensure that their courts are properly prepared for disasters and emergencies.

We encourage you to attend the conference, and our session, and to take the time to ensure that your court is properly prepared before the next disaster strikes.