Kentucky Statewide Model Court

Brief History

The Child Victims Act Model Court Project focuses on improving the government response to children and families in the child welfare system to ensure safe, timely and permanent homes for children.  Louisville has been a “Model Court” demonstration site since 1997.  In 2010, the Kentucky Court of Justice, Administrative Office of the Courts, Department of Family and Juvenile Services requested NCJFCJ assistance to implement Model Court best practices statewide.  In August 2010, under the leadership of Judge Patricia Walker FitzGerald, the Kentucky Statewide Model Court held its first All-Sites meeting.  The Kentucky Statewide Model Court started with five counties, but today it consists of eleven Model Court jurisdictions. In August 2011, Kentucky hosted a state Child Abuse and Neglect Institute to further educate the judiciary on best practices.  In addition, Jefferson County has conducted a variety of diversity trainings over the years, including some specifically to enhance cultural understanding and respect for diversity due to the large number of immigrants located in that area.    

Vision:  FJS is dedicated to making the Commonwealth a safe and healthy place for all children and families through providing high quality service to the judiciary and staff of FJS regarding best practices in dependency, abuse and neglect cases.

Mission:  FJS will provide resources and technical assistance to Family Law judges and Model Court teams to enhance, promote and coordinate innovation in court practices and utilization of the Resource Guidelines; enhance Model Court team and cross-system collaboration increase safety, permanency and well being for children; and enhance the capacity of communities to more successfully provide for the needs of Kentucky’s children.    


Current Lead Judge: Judge Patricia Walker FitzGerald

Past Louisville Model Court Lead Judge: Judge Richard FitzGerald

Court website -

Successfully Implemented Signature Best Practices

1. One Family One Judge

Family Court is involved in the most intimate and complex aspects of human nature and social relations. For that reason, Kentucky’s Family Courts use a case management process that distinguishes it from other trial courts. With the One Family, One Judge, One Court approach, cases are presented in a single court, allowing the same judge to hear all matters involving a particular family. This reduces the stress that can arise when individuals are shuttled between courts to resolve a variety of issues.

Because Family Court gives cases involving families and children the highest priority, these cases do not compete with criminal and other civil cases for judicial time. As a division of Circuit Court, which is the highest trial court in Kentucky, Family Court employs full-time judges with the same qualifications as those who serve the other divisions of Circuit Court.

In addition to the family matters heard in Circuit Court, Family Court judges also handle family law matters that were traditionally decided in District Court. Family Court jurisdiction is defined by KRS 23A.100 and 23A.110 and includes the following:

·         Dissolution of marriage

·         Spousal support and equitable distribution

·         Child custody, support and visitation

·         Paternity

·         Adoption

·         Domestic violence

·         Dependency, neglect and abuse

·         Termination of parental rights

·         Status Offenses (runaways, truancy, beyond control)

2. Appointment of Guardians ad Litem

The Child Abuse and Prevention Act of 1974 requires the appointment of a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) to represent the child in every judicial proceeding involving abuse or neglect.  Kentucky judges take this very seriously and make it a practice to appoint a GAL as early in a case as possible.  Attorneys who wish to practice as GALs are selected by various means.  In some Kentucky counties, a small number of attorneys with expertise in juvenile law perform GAL work on a rotating basis.  In others, a relatively large number of attorneys seeking GAL work comprise a master list and are selected at random. In order to have the most prepared and professional pool of GALs possible, the “Legal Training for Dependency, Abuse and Neglect” was created and is offered at a minimum of six locations across the state each year.  Facilitated by a long time prosecutor from a judicial district with one of the highest family law caseloads in the state, these are highly rated by attendees and judges alike.  In many jurisdictions, judges require that an attorney attend one of these prior to appointment as a GAL in any case.  The curricula now offered in both a “basic” and an “advanced” version. The Model Court judges have worked to further improve this process by setting high standards for GALs, including the development of a standardized report for the court and requiring a minimum level of interaction with the client. 

3. Children in Court Proceedings

Kentucky Family Court judges are proponents of having youth in court proceedings as often as is appropriate and feasible, taking into account any special needs of the child.  For several years Lead Judge Patricia Walker-FitzGerald and others have worked diligently to educate their peers on the importance and benefits of this practice through presentations at judicial conferences and training sessions. Judge Lucinda Masterton is one example of a judge experimenting with technology to find solutions by using video conferencing to include children placed in settings far from court.  Judge Bruce Petrie and his team are using technology in another way to reach out to families.  They are creating an informational video to play in the waiting area, which is also suitable for use by other jurisdictions.  Showing the children and families the basic process in an informal and friendly way, participants can feel more comfortable and confident of their importance in their own proceedings and of the purpose of various hearings and professionals they are likely to see in court. 

4. Provision of applicable services as early as possible

The most common strategy utilized by Kentucky’s courts to achieve this best practice includes the front-loading of services and information to generate momentum to timely permanency.  In multiple Model Court sites “Assessment Protocol” committees have been established in order to expedite this.  When appropriate under the protocol, the court recommends an assessment to the clients, the client is briefed by his or her attorney, and the client makes a decision regarding participation.  If they agree, the client meets with the assessor in a separate room immediately and an assessment is completed.  The results are provided to the judge who will read the recommendations on the record that day. Dates and times for a more formal screening are provided to the client at the end of the hearing.  

Additional Best Practices and Initiatives Implemented 

Parent Representation

One family-One Judge

Children in Court

Kentucky Summit to End Child Abuse Deaths

Kids in Court: A Young Person’s Guide to Dependency, Neglect & Abuse Court Pamphlet:

NATIONAL GOAL: Courts Catalyzing Change or Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) Compliance & Tribal Engagement

Research has demonstrated that children and families of color are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system and frequently experience disparate outcomes.  While children of all races are equally as likely to suffer from child abuse and neglect, the percentage of African-American children who enter and remain in out-of-home care is greater than their proportion in the population. The complexity and significance of this issue points to the critical need for collaborative efforts to not only further study the factors that contribute to racial disproportionality and disparities in the child welfare system, but also to design and implement specific actions that courts and child welfare system stakeholders can take to reduce these inequities and ultimately improve outcomes for all children and families. To this end, CIP staff provided Model Court sites with material related to The Courts Catalyzing Change: Achieving Equity and Fairness in Foster Care Initiative (CCC), funded by Casey Family Programs and supported by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), as well as posting related materials on the electronic SharePoint site.  FJS staff will assist Model Courts to identify and evaluate decision points in the dependency court system to determine appropriate actions.  Other related activities include:

  • “Race Matters”, a training presented by Kentucky Youth Advocates and based on the Annie E. Casey “Race Matters Toolkit” was offered at the Fayette County Extension Office in Lexington in January, 2012 by the Fayette County Model Court Race Community and Child Welfare sub-committee.  
  • The Hardin County Model Court Steering Committee invited Kentucky Youth Advocates to do a presentation August 30, 2012 on the “Race Community and Child Welfare” initiative.  The Steering Committee created a Race Community and Child Welfare sub-committee. The Hardin County Training sub-committee held a “Race Matters” training in August 2012 modeled on the one in Fayette County.

STATE GOAL: Reduce the time from the filing of the petition or emergency removal order to permanency for children whose cases are appropriate for adoption.

Model Court Lead Judges meet on a quarterly basis to share their ideas, discuss successes and challenges, determine ways to best assess their child abuse and neglect case processing, focus on barriers to timely permanency, develop plans for court improvement, and work collaboratively to effect systems change to improve outcomes for children and families. At the January 2013 meeting, this group chose “Timely finalizing permanent alternative homes for children who cannot return home” as their main focus and decided to find ways to ensure a shorter time until adoption based on their review of data.  In fact, this is a common theme reflected in the local goals, so there is high interest in this issue statewide. A workgroup is currently refining the parameters of the goal and designing tracking mechanisms with AOC data personnel for the associated data.  The Model Court team will be tracking adoption and TPR related Court Performance Measures.

Working together on Model Court goals in Kentucky fall into two main categories:

  • State goal: this gives all of the Lead Judges a common vision and allows them to tackle one large issue relevant to all of them.  This will provide a common direction for the work of the judges who participate and allow the state to be a “laboratory for change” as well as the local sites.
  • Local goals: setting these allows the local sites to use data-driven decision making and feedback from local partners in order to set goals specific to their localities.  While they vary from site to site, there are general themes across the state. Such common themes might be useful in helping the Lead Judges in choosing future state goals and giving helpful feedback about strategies to new Model Court sites.


o   Common themes in the local site goals include the following general concepts:

§  Reduction of time to TPR

§  Providing training based on local needs identified

§  Reduction of re-entry

§  Review work of sub-committees; determine need to add or change these; effectiveness of these

§  Data collection, review, etc

§  Reduction of time to permanency or time in care

§  Collaboration with service providers, education, etc (community awareness of MC or related children’s issues)

LOCAL GOAL: The following are a representative sample of local Model Court Goals

Reduce the time to permanency.  Update the data collection process and separation of Model Court participants versus non-participants by working with AOC data personnel.

Establishment of a “Kids Zone” for the Family Courtrooms by March 1, 2013 through use of the “Kids in Court” sub-committee which will be staffed by volunteers on each DNA court day.

Reduce the time between the goal change and TPR trial. The court and DCBS will work together and have ongoing discussions on ways to shorten the span of time from goal change to TPR and come up with feasible solutions such as shortening the notice pleadings for TPR and freeing up more court time for TPRs.

Within six months, have a designated office in the courthouse from which CASA may work each Wednesday so that CASA volunteers can assist families by contacting providers to set up appointments as ordered or suggested by the Court. 

Work towards reducing the re-entry rate of children who have been in care. The goal is to reduce this number by one third by October 1, 2013. This goal will be achieved by monitoring DCBS permanency data and CourtNet data; focusing on frontloading services to families; developing strong transition plans when children go home; and monitoring wrap around services.

Aim to reduce the recidivism rate of status offenders by one third. In an effort to reach this goal, sites will host training on childhood trauma. The intended outcome is to educate at least 100 community education partners on the effects of childhood trauma in order to appropriately deal with children impacted by trauma. The court will also utilize the Comp Care grant by making more referrals to the trauma therapy offered by Comp Care.