This episode recorded on 3/24/2020.
COVID-19 is affecting court operations across the country, forcing many judiciaries to close courthouses, reduce or delay hearings, or conduct business remotely.
Family Court, which addresses complex issues involving some of our most vulnerable populations, is no exception. In an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, New York City Family Court is operating remotely as much as possible and carrying out only those activities considered “essential,” which the court defines as “functions that cannot be postponed without serious consequences to the parties involved.”
That means court is limited to hearing applications for child removal, juvenile delinquency cases where a youth is being detained, and orders of protection in domestic violence cases, according to Kate Wurmfeld, director of Family Court Operations at the Center for Court Innovation.
Wurmfeld, on our In Practice podcast, says remote hearings make it harder for judges to gather facts and assess credibility, while parents have a difficult time addressing important issues like visitation and accessing services. “This whole crisis is challenging for everyone, but for the vulnerable families that we serve, this really becomes life and death,” she says.
Wurmeld, who oversees Center programs like the Strong Starts Court Initiative and Parent Support Program, says everyone—from the court, to attorneys, to the city’s child welfare agency—is working hard to meet families’ needs, but the evolving precautions necessary to limit disease transmission are a challenge.
Child welfare workers are still making home visits—as long as no one in the home has COVID-19 or symptoms of the illness, she explains. Otherwise, the workers have to conduct visits remotely, which makes it difficult to gather unfiltered information about children’s health or safety.
It has been harder for coordinators in the Strong Starts program to ease the trauma of separation on young children by facilitating contact between parents and children who have been removed. It’s also difficult for them to coordinate visits when families are under quarantine or place children in foster care when potential foster parents have fears about exposure to the virus.
“We’re working with a foster parent; she’s a reliable caregiver. And she’s been getting some requests to take in children who are symptomatic, and she has underlying health problems herself and she’s caring for other children. So she’s being put in a position where she needs to balance the needs of her own health and the children she’s already caring for, but also the desire to help children who are experiencing this crisis,” Wurmfeld says.
Kate Wurmfeld: We know that crises like these add stress to families and can increase the likelihood of abuse and neglect or domestic violence in the home, and when families are being quarantined and people are losing their jobs and are generally very anxious and stressed out, this increases the risk of abuse.
Rob Wolf: Hi, this is Rob Wolf. I'm director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation, and this is In Practice, one of the two podcasts we produce at the Center for Court Innovation. At In Practice, we try to focus on the work of practitioners and get a little insight into the work they're doing, some of the challenges they face, the innovations they are perhaps developing or trying to implement.
Right now the Center for Court Innovation, New York City, and the United States and the entire world are grappling with the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, and we're trying to use some episodes of this podcast to spotlight some of the challenges that have arisen as a result of this and how they affect the court system and the people who go through the court system and through the justice system—the people who work there, the clients, participants, litigants, and their families and the communities.
Today I have with me Kate Wurmfeld, who is the director of Family Court Programs at the Center for Court Innovation, and we were going to talk about how family court has been affected by COVID-19 here in New York City and New York state, which is pretty emblematic of how family courts around the country are being affected right now. We're going to talk a little bit about some of the challenges they're facing and the families are facing who go through Family Court, and how we are responding at the Center for Court Innovation.
Kate, thank you so much for being willing to answer my questions.
KW: Thank you for having me.
RW: Before we go into this issue, let me just ask how you're doing because you and I usually work in the same office in Midtown Manhattan, and now we're both in our homes participating in New York State's PAUSE, as Governor Cuomo has called it, where people are required, if at all possible, to work at home. So how are you?
KW: Yeah, it's hard to kind of do anything or talk about anything without first checking in and seeing how folks are responding to this situation, and feeling, and balancing with family and other responsibilities. So, I'm doing as well as can be expected, you know, homeschooling my children and trying to still figure out how we continue to serve our clients and everything else, all the other uncertainties. So, doing well under the circumstances.
RW: Good. Well, I'm glad to hear that. That's great. I'm kind of in the same boat here, trying to figure out personal and work things at the same time and make sure everyone is safe. So, before we talk about COVID-19, maybe you could explain a little bit about the work the Center for Court Innovation does in Family Court. I think our criminal court programs generally get a little bit more of the spotlight, so I think maybe some listeners and some people may not be as familiar with what we're doing in Family Court. Could you talk about some of our programming on the Family Court side?
KW: Yeah, I think that's right, Rob. All of the groundbreaking work that the Center has been involved in and has implemented around criminal justice reform has gotten a lot of attention, and that mission to create a more humane justice system really applies in Family Court as well. And in fact, I like to say that Family Court is really just the earliest entry into the justice system for a lot of the folks that we serve. There's a lot of crossover, and we see a lot of intergenerational cycles of system involvement. So a lot of the challenges that you see in the criminal justice system, you see in the Family Court as well, and often compounded by other risk factors because you're dealing with very young children, and children with special needs, and families who are stressed and having to balance caring for themselves as well as their children. So, a lot of challenges in Family Court.
In terms of how we respond to those challenges, we've created several programs within the Family Court, problem-solving program to help families not only navigate the court process, but also helping to provide and connect them with supportive services that will address the underlying needs that brought them to the attention of the justice system to begin with.
So examples of those programs are our Parent Support Program, which helps noncustodial parents overcome barriers to being able to support their children, both financially and emotionally. It helps connect them with job resources, with other supportive services, mental health services, substance use services, really anything that is serving as a barrier to being able to support their children. And then our Strong Starts Court Initiative, which I think we'll focus on today, is another problem-solving court project that is based in the Family Court in three boroughs right now, in the Bronx and Queens and Staten Island, and consists of a dedicated judge who oversees a caseload of families where the children are under three years old.
The Center for Court Innovation has placed a clinical coordinator, who's a social worker, and an infant mental health specialist into the court to team up with this judge and to work with families to provide targeted assessments of the children and their caregivers, to develop specialized service plans to address the needs of very young children, including dyadic therapy and other relational therapies, like child-parent psychotherapy that helps repair attachment disruptions, which happens when children are removed from their parents as part of child protective proceedings.
RW: I suppose it's fair to say that families end up in Family Court because they are experiencing extreme problems of some kind.
KW: Right. All of these families have been brought to the attention of the Family Court on abuse and neglect allegations, and so they are families who are at risk, children who are at risk for abuse and neglect, and a lot of the parents in Strong Starts have been system-involved themselves, and so they come with a whole host of adversities , including complex trauma. They tend to be very young and without supports, and this places their very young children at greater risk for future problems as well.
RW: Well, thank you for explaining all of that. So, let's talk about COVID-19. How has the court system and the family court system in particular responded, given the need to maintain social distance where possible, to limit face-to-face contacts? What's happening?
KW: As you can imagine, this whole crisis and the whole situation is challenging for everyone, but for the vulnerable families that we serve, this becomes really life and death. So, where do I start? The Family Court has all but shut down. As of Thursday, they will only be hearing emergency applications remotely, and what qualifies as an emergency is very narrowly defined. It's only applications for removals of children, so where children are being removed from their home and need to be placed somewhere else, as well as juvenile delinquency cases where youth are being detained, and orders of protection and domestic violence cases. So those are essentially the three categories of cases that will still be heard remotely, so not even fully heard, but heard in this kind of makeshift way that we're all sort of grappling with, right? How do we continue to function, how do our systems continue to function?
RW: You're saying that something's lost when you move a hearing from in-person to remote?
KW: Yeah, I think what the courts are struggling with is, how do you ensure due process when you don't have folks in person? Challenges around validating evidence and assessing credibility and all of the things that courts do, doing those things over a video conference is much more challenging. And for parents whose children have been removed, it's not really clear at this point how they're going to be able to fight that removal and be heard on these cases, because it seems like cases are being heard initially, but then there's a lot of adjournments and a lot of things kind of happening to move with this crisis and to adapt to this crisis.
KW: So it's not really clear how they're going to be able to do that, and I think that causes a lot of stress for the parents that we're serving in terms of, not only how they're going to be able to have their case heard, but also, what's going to happen in the duration of their case? Will they be able to see their children who've been removed under these new COVID-19 restrictive measures? Will they be able to access the services that their visitation is contingent on? When there's a child protection case and children are removed, then parents are expected to do certain things in order to be able to access their children or to be reunified with their children, and if they're seeing major service disruptions and they have accessibility issues there, then they may not be able to complete their service plans to be able to see their children or be reunited with their children.
RW: Can you give an example? What kind of services might they be required to do in order to be able to see their children?
KW: Yeah, so substance use is obviously an issue, so drug treatment programs are typically a part of a service plan. You know, that's a common issue. Domestic violence services, whether it's abusive partner intervention programs or other services. They may not be able to access mental health services, compliance with mental health services, compliance with medication. All of those things are being interrupted or disrupted, so are going to not only create additional risk factors for families, but also make it harder for them to be reunited with their children and to be able to get the support they need to be able to safely care for their children.
RW: So since they're prioritizing remote hearings for applications for the removal of children, it sounds like it's easier to remove a child than it is to return a child or to allow a parent to have contact with their child right now.
KW: Essentially, yeah, it is. I think the challenge for the court and for the Administration for Children's Services is where there is risk to child that may warrant a removal, there is an avenue to remove, right? The courts are hearing those applications. But then when it comes to, how do you safely reunify or how do you case plan with the parents whose children have been removed, that's a much more difficult question, and of course presents all kinds of risks for the child as well because being removed from their families is a traumatic experience, and the continued separation and removal of children is going to take its toll on these already vulnerable kids.
RW: And so what happens ... I read an article today that, elsewhere in the country, some foster families are reluctant to take children because when a child is removed, are they usually put with a foster family? And if a foster family is afraid of bringing someone new into their home because they're afraid of potentially contracting COVID-19, is that a potential problem as well?
KW: Yeah, we're already seeing that. In fact, we have a case in Staten Island where we're working with a child and our foster parent, who's actually considered a really important resource to the foster care agency because she's a sought after foster parent. You know, she's a reliable caregiver, and she's been actually getting some requests to take in children who are symptomatic, and she has underlying health problems herself. Plus, she cares for other children, and so she's being put in this position where she needs to balance the needs of her own health, the children she's already caring for, but also the desire to help children who are experiencing this crisis and may be symptomatic and may not have anywhere else to go, and if we can't find foster families for them, then they're going to end up at the Children's Center or some other congregate care facility, which we know is horribly disruptive for children. They're not going to have the care and the attachment figure that they need to be able to develop normally. All of these are compounding traumas that children will be experiencing.
RW: Before we started recording, you were describing to me how the child welfare agency in New York City, the Administration for Children's Services, has new protocols in place. How are those impacting their work?
KW: There's kind of evolving guidance, I think, as everyone struggles to respond to this unprecedented situation. So recent guidance from the Administration for Children's Services puts in place protocols for health and safety that includes the child protective workers screening families, and essentially that means asking them if they're symptomatic or if anyone in the household is symptomatic, and where the answer is no, then home visits are still happening when they've assessed that a family is at high risk, and then they are supposed to just follow the Department of Health guidelines around health and sanitation, so washing hands, and using hand sanitizer, and staying six feet away from household members, and not touching anything when they're there, and those kinds of things that we're all familiar with at this point.
And so they're still conducting these investigations and these home visits for these higher risk families when the members of the family are not symptomatic. Where they are symptomatic, then they are attempting to hold these home visits by Zoom or FaceTime or telephonically as necessary. This is the guidance.
RW: These home visits are to investigate allegations of child abuse?
KW: That's right. And so the home visits that have to take place electronically, there are protocols for them to follow in those circumstances as well, including that they have to interview every child in the household and make sure, where possible, to be able to see the child visually. But of course, it's very hard to assess these kinds of situations remotely, and while we're worried about unnecessary removals, or removals generally and how that is going to proceed through the court system, we're also of course worried about increased risk to children during this time.
We know that crises like these add stress to families and can increase the likelihood of abuse and neglect or domestic violence in the home, and when families are being quarantined and people are losing their jobs and are generally very anxious and stressed out, this increases the risk of abuse. Without being able to really assess for that, because if you're looking at a child over a video, it's kind of hard to see what's going on and you don't really know who else is in the room and whether the child is fearful or not, so those are concerns as well.
I think children are also more at risk when they don't have access to your typical mandated reporters. So they're not going to school, they're not going to regular medical checkups. They're just at home, and if they're at home with an abusive parent, then they're not going to have the protections that they might otherwise have or the access that they might otherwise have.
RW: Because a doctor or a teacher may observe something and then report what they've observed, and that would alert authorities to the fact that there may be abuse in the home.
RW: I can imagine people whose jobs it is, like our staff and our colleagues and the folks at the Administration for Children's Services, are frustrated and concerned and having a difficult time with these limitations because it makes their work harder, and it makes it harder for them to carry out their goal, which is to protect children. So, how are they feeling and how are they dealing with it?
KW: That's a great question, and I feel like I wouldn't be capturing it if I didn't also talk about all of the challenges that our staff have to deal with their own families and their own health, while also figuring out how to meet the needs of the very vulnerable families that they serve. So I think that the personal wellness of our staff can't be stressed enough. You know, we want to make sure that we're figuring out how to support them as best as possible throughout all this.
In terms of how Strong Starts staff is responding, they are engaging with the families that they serve as much as possible. They are trying to be that source of support that they are under normal circumstances. The Strong Starts coordinator is often the only stable figure in a child protection case. There's a lot of turnover in staff at the Administration for Children's Services, so there may be several different case planners throughout the life of the case, and so the Strong Starts coordinator ... And there's turnover in staff at the legal organizations as well, so sometimes the Strong Starts coordinator is the only one who is kind of there throughout the whole process and knows what's been happening all along, what's been happening with services and what progress looks like and that kind of thing. So they continue to kind of be that stabilizing force for families, but they're helping them navigate this very new reality.
So, normally they're working for a very organized process where they do assessments, they develop service plans, they help families to access those services, they address barriers to being able to access services. They hold clinical conferences with all of the stakeholders and provide detailed reports to the court. They can't do that right now, and so what they are dealing with is helping families to navigate the court process to the extent that there is a court process. So, what does that look like and how can they expand visitation during this time? How can they move their case along? How can they make progress towards reunification?
So helping them navigate those issues, as well as helping them navigate disruptions in their services and figuring out how they can access these services remotely. All kinds of things are coming up around access to technology and other barriers for families who are living in poverty, which now can be even more critical in terms of being able to access services in that way, and then also helping to meet their emergency needs. Families, what they're seeing a lot of is the loss of employment and the loss of income, and having to access benefits, and doing that remotely. There's so much happening right now, and our social workers are really on the front line and providing that lifeline for families, and I couldn't be more proud of the work that they're doing right now.
RW: Well, it sounds really, really challenging because it's already challenging work to begin with, and then to have all these limitations on reaching out to people, the services. Gosh, it really ... Well, it's amazing that they're still there on the front lines doing what they can do.
RW: I guess I should emphasize, I mean, and you said it too, that this is an evolving situation. Things you said and things that are going on, in a few days that may change. The rules may change. So, just for the record, we're speaking on the afternoon of March 24, 2020. So, just for reference in case ... I can imagine in a couple of days something changing, so that's the context that we're talking in right now.
KW: Yeah. I feel like our response is going to be evolving. I mean, I know you said that obviously the situation is going to evolve, but we're constantly thinking about new ways to respond. I think that's actually forefront on everyone's mind is figuring out how to adapt to this new reality and how we can be most responsive to the ongoing challenges that families are going to be facing.
RW: Thank you so much, Kate. This is a really difficult time, but it's inspiring to know that you and a number of other dedicated people are working hard to try to mitigate the negative impacts of what's going on because of this health crisis that we're all facing, so thank you for your work and thank you for spending some time to talk to me today to explain what's going on.
KW: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Rob, and I look forward to continuing the conversation, and hopefully making some progress.
RW: And I look forward to seeing you in person as soon as it's safe for us to reduce our social distance.
KW: Me too. I look forward to that as well.
RW: I've been speaking with Kate Wurmfeld, who is the director of Family Court Programs at the Center for Court Innovation. This is the In Practice podcast. Please subscribe if you don't on whatever podcast platform you use, and visit our website at courtinnovation.org for updates on how we're addressing what's going on in the justice system as it's affected by COVID-19, and also just for more information about our programs, like the Strong Starts program or the Parent Support Program that Kate was talking about. Thank you for listening and be well.