One of the first questions attorneys and CASA volunteers often ask is whether a child should attend court. Juvenile court in any jurisdiction can, at best, be a confusing and sometimes overwhelming environment for a child. Emotions understandably run high and, coupled with the large number of people often gathered in the waiting area, it can be a stressful situation for a child already worried about where she’s going to sleep that night or when she might get to visit with her mom and dad.
The Missouri Supreme Court rules tell us that when deciding whether to proceed without the child’s presence, the court should consider the child’s age, maturity, the nature of the evidence, and whether the GAL will waive the child’s presence.
Let’s look at age. Older children and teens should attend court in order to address the judge and be a part of the court process. And if you’ve ever had the opportunity to listen to a panel of foster youth talk about their experiences in the system, you’ve probably heard a common theme. Teenagers usually want to be at the hearings. Imagine a group of people meeting periodically to discuss the details of your life – among other things, where you’re going to live and when you’re going to reunite with your family. We’d all want to be there.
But what if a child is younger? We look to the Missouri Standards for Guardians ad Litem for guidance on when GALs should be willing to waive a child’s presence. The Standards state, “The guardian ad litem shall not waive the presence of the child at court proceedings without good cause.” So what is good cause? Good cause may include the child’s therapist recommending against it or maybe the child doesn’t want to come to court because he’ll miss school or an extracurricular activity. It might be easier, however, to think about what is not good cause. For example, it’s not good cause simply because it’s not convenient to bring the child to court or because the child is placed far away, making transportation difficult.
GALs and other parties alike are often worried about the potential harm in having a child attend court. One way to alleviate some of the potential stress of attending hearings is to explain the court process thoroughly to the child before and after any hearings. The comment in Standard 9.0 states,
“to decrease the trauma to the child, the guardian ad litem should explain to the child what is happening and what is expected of the child in all proceedings involving the child…the guardian ad litem should make a diligent effort to ensure that the child understands the nature of the proceedings, the placement or services that may result, and the possibility of future modifications in placement or services.”
Although they give us factors to consider, the statutes and GAL rules don’t seem to give us clear examples of when a child’s presence at court should be waived. And there’s likely a good reason for that. Every child and every family is different. In order to determine what is best for a child, the GAL must know the child. A list of rules about when a child should attend court and when she shouldn’t will not fit every child. Bottom line: only through face-to-face contact with the child in addition to an ongoing dialogue with service and placement providers can the GAL make the best decision about when to waive a child’s presence at court.