New Orleans Mentor Model Court

Brief History

In 1999, the Child Protection Division of the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court became an NCJFCJ Model Court site under the leadership of Judge Ernestine Gray.  In 2013, the New Orleans Model Court achieved Mentor Court status.  As its mission, the New Orleans Model Court, “joins the community in providing safety, permanency and well-being for children and preserving families when in the child's best interest while insuring the dignity and due process rights of all.”  In the Child Protection Division, two judges handle cases involving child abuse and neglect, termination of parental rights, voluntary transfers of custody, surrender of parents’ rights, and adoptions flowing from the underlying child protection cases.  The Lead Judge of the New Orleans Model Court also serves as the Chief Judge of the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court. 

The New Orleans Model Court uses a committee structure to further the work of the collaborative.  The committees are: Education and Training Committee and Standards of Representation, IJJIS (Integrated Juvenile Justice Information System), Mental Health, Disproportionate Minority Contact Committee (DMC), Teen and Judge Day, National Adoption Day, Reunification Picnic, Transitioning Youth Committee, and Strategic Planning Committee.

In addition to various court staff, the membership of the New Orleans Model Court includes a broad array of stakeholders: State CIP Administrator, Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) Regional Administrator and Supervisors, CASA Director, Supervising Attorney with the Office of the Public Defender, Children’s Attorneys (provided through the Child Advocacy Program within the Mental Health Advocacy Service in the Office of the Governor), Assistant District Attorneys, Case Coordinator for Zero to Three (ZTT), Coordinator for the Court Coordination Program (Dual Jurisdiction), Coordinator for the Older Youth/Benchmark Conferences, Coordinator for the Domestic Violence Program, Regional Director with the Office of Juvenile Justice, Attorney with the Bureau of General Counsel, Adoption Advocates, Supervisor with the Mental Health Program, and Social Services Director for the Chitimacha Tribe.

In 2005, the New Orleans Model Court experienced grave disruptions and losses to services, programs, and personnel when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit Louisiana.  Children who were in foster care placements were moved to safe places around the country because of the loss of local housing and foster homes.  Judges, court staff, attorneys, social workers, and probation officers had to relocate as well.  Flooding destroyed court files and documents and affected the offices of the District Attorney and the Indigent Defender’s Office; fortunately, the records of Orleans Parish Juvenile Court were not destroyed.  Since Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Model Court has rebuilt operations, calendars, personnel, programs and community ties.  The Orleans Parish Juvenile Court developed a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) to provide a process for meeting future disasters.  A major test of the COOP came nearly seven years to the day after Hurricane Katrina when Hurricane Isaac hit Orleans Parish and surrounding communities.  The Model Court’s disaster plans to protect the safety of children in foster care were smoothly implemented.

Leadership

Current Lead Judge(s):  Judge Ernestine Gray, Past President of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ)

Court website – http://www.opjc.com

Successfully Implemented Signature Best Practices

1.  Benchmark Conferences

In 2007, the New Orleans Model Court began benchmark conferencing by developing and piloting protocols with one judge and one court section.  Subsequently, the judge for the other section also began holding conferences with youths.  While the two sections follow slightly different procedures, both sections and judges make meeting with youths, reviewing plans and preparation for adulthood, and discussing relationships with supportive adults the focus of each benchmark conference.  Both judges also rely on the Benchmark Conference Coordinator, a staff member with DCFS, to work with the youth’s case workers to ensure that the youth is ready and prepared for the Benchmark Conference.  The Coordinator reviews program eligibility requirements and protocols with caseworkers for these youth.  She assists caseworkers in planning services and supports for their youth and with completing appropriate documentation with the youth in preparation for each conference.  The Coordinator also plays an important role in scheduling the Benchmark Conferences with each judge and assists caseworkers with conference follow-up.

A key component of the Benchmark Conference Program is its active efforts, for each teen, to identify and involve a responsible adult who will serve as the teen’s “Child-Identified Advocate” (CIA).  The CIA will have continued contact with the youth through and beyond transition from foster.  Through signing a formal “pact” filed with the teen’s record, the CIA commits to having a supportive and ongoing relationship with the youth.

The Model Court-initiated Benchmark Conference Program fits well with the Youth Transition Plan (YTP), a DCFS statewide initiative that involves DCFS staff throughout the state working with youth 15 and older to help them identify goals and services to guide their transition from foster care to independence.

Both the Model Court’s Benchmark Conference Program and the DCFS YTP are important strategies for implementing the federal 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act.  The Benchmark Program is also an important vehicle for implementing the Resource Guidelines best practices of having youth attend court and of engaging youth with the court in services and goal planning.  Through benchmark conferencing and the documentation for each youth that it calls for, the judge is able to monitor key well-being indicators such as school and placement stability, educational achievement, and youth access to and relationships with siblings and other people important in his or her life.  The New Orleans Model Court also holds an annual “Teen and Judge Day.”  This event provides additional attention and support to teens and connects them with community programs and services as well as educational and employment opportunities. 

2.  Permanency for Children Zero to Three

As a participating site in the Zero to Three (ZTT) Court Teams for Maltreated Infant and Toddlers Program, the New Orleans Model Court implemented the best practices of having babies and toddlers attend court, of holding frequent hearings (hearings on monthly basis), and of front-loading services for child well-being and for parent engagement at the beginning of each case.

The New Orleans Model Court became a ZTT site in 2006 and began receiving cases in 2007.  Members of the ZZT Court Team – the ZTT Coordinator, the attorney for the baby/toddler, the attorney(s) for the parent(s), CASA staff, the attorney for the state, and the case worker/supervisor hold case staffings (Family Team Meetings) prior to each monthly hearing.  At case staffings, the team reviews the health and well-being of the infant/toddler, the status of assessments and services ordered for the baby/toddler, and the parent’s progress toward reunification.  The New Orleans Model Court ZTT team collaborates with several area providers to obtain infant mental health services and child-parent psychotherapy, early intervention services, parenting education, housing, and pediatric care for their ZTT cases.  Community partners providing these services include Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Infant Team, Early Steps, Volunteers of America Family Resource Center, Crescent House, and the Tiger Care Clinic.

Additional Best Practices and Initiatives Implemented

Cold Case Review Project (improving permanency for children of color)

Children in Court

Speedy Issuance of Court Orders

Courts Catalyzing Change Training series

Pilot site for statewide court information management system (IJJIS) development

Current Goals

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

The Director of Social Services for the Chitimacha Tribe is a member of the New Orleans Model Court Collaborative.  She joined the collaborative after participating in the 2010 All Sites Meeting as part of the New Orleans Model Court’s delegation to the conference.  In 2011, members of the New Orleans Model Court collaborative made a cross-site visit to the Chitimacha reservation.  More recently, Chitimacha Tribal Social Services staff participated in the New Orleans Model Court’s 2012 spring strategic planning session held at the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court in New Orleans.

STATE GOAL:  Statewide Implementation of Best Practices

The New Orleans Model Court’s statewide initiative for 2012 was to promote awareness of the ICWA and improvement in ICWA compliance.  The New Orleans Model Court Lead Judge gave a workshop on the ICWA with David Simmons of the National Indian Child Welfare Association at the October 2012 Louisiana statewide annual conference, “Together We Can. ” The conference was sponsored by DCFS, CIP, CASA, Louisiana Children's Trust Fund and other state and national partners including NICWA.  

LOCAL GOAL:  Child Well-Being - Youth in Transition

To guide its work in improving the well-being of older youth, the New Orleans Model Court  created the Transitioning Youth Committee, chaired by the Director of Orleans Parish CASA program.  The CASA program received funding to develop a manual specifically geared to helping advocates work with older youth   The Transitioning Youth Committee will be looking at how best to coordinate and maximize the Court’s Benchmark Conference Program, the DCFS YTP, and CASA’s older youth initiative as complementary strategies.