The Second Annual South Dakota Children’s Justice Conference was held in Rapid City on September 11, 2012, and will be held in Sioux Falls on September 13, 2012. I attended the event in Rapid City. This was the second year that such a conference was held, and I am thrilled that it appears that this will be an ongoing annual event. This demonstrates a recognition by the Unified Judicial System of the importance of children’s welfare, and helps make sure that the topic comes to the forefront at least once a year. Some of my thoughts following this year’s conference are below.
One of the presentations this year was by Young Voices, a group composed of teenage youth who are or were involved in the child welfare system. The concept for the Young Voices group came from a similar Iowa group of foster youth that used to be called Elevate, but has since evolved into AMP. The Young Voices group in Rapid City just got started a short time ago, so I suspect the conference was one of their first times speaking to a large group. Three very courageous youth who are currently in DSS custody shared their personal stories, and responded to questions that had been submitted beforehand. In my opinion, the Young Voices presentation was the best aspect of the conference, because it provided the most direct insight into South Dakota’s system as it currently exists. It is often far too easy to discount stories of failings in the child welfare system by saying that such things would not happen here or would not happen today. It is impossible to do that with the stories of youth who are currently living in our system.
One disturbing revelation was that one of the Young Voices youth did not know who her attorney was, or that she even had an attorney. An attorney was almost certainly appointed for her at some point, but that attorney has apparently not done his or her job, and has probably committed malpractice in my opinion. Another very interesting revelation was that none of the three Young Voices speakers had fewer than five different DSS workers that had been involved in their case. This is stark anecdotal evidence of the high turnover rate of child welfare caseworkers. In contrast, the one youth who has a CASA volunteer has had that same volunteer though out the entire case. This goes to show the importance of CASA volunteers, who are often a source of stability for a child in foster care. There are currently about 70 child abuse and neglect cases in Pennington County without a CASA volunteer, and a primary reason for this is that there are not enough volunteers. If you are interested in becoming a CASA volunteer, please contact the 7th Circuit CASA program if you live in Rapid City or the southern hills, or the Northern Hills CASA program if you live in northern hills area. I have personally witnessed CASA workers make huge impacts on child welfare cases. It would be a wonderful and concrete accomplishment if a CASA volunteer could be immediately appointed in every single case.
Another interesting thing that I learned at the conference involved the timing of the transfer of cases from state court to tribal court. A tribal court judge indicated that he often waits to accept jurisdiction of cases until after the adjudication hearing has taken place. The adjudication hearing is the part of an abuse and neglect proceeding where the State has to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the child has been abused or neglected. It typically takes place 60 to 90 days from the time the child is taken into State custody. The tribal court judge offered several good reasons for waiting until after the adjudicatory hearing to transfer. One such reason is that the tribal court may lack the power to subpoena necessary witnesses who do not reside on the reservation. That might make it impossible for tribal prosecutors to prove their case. Another reason is that many tribal courts cannot afford to provide accused parents with attorney representation. In state court, accused parents are guaranteed the right to attorney representation if they are indigent.
My hope is that future Children’s Justice Conferences will be able to generate more synergy with regard to systemic rather than individual changes. The first two conferences provided some good information that will probably be used by a number of people to improve the individual work that they do. However, I fear that, like last year’s conference, this year’s conference will fail to prompt a meaningful discussion of what systemic changes could prove beneficial. I can personally think of a number of potential systemic changes that are at least worthy of discussion, but they are probably best saved for another time.