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  • Children & the Law Section Blog
    June 17, 2021

    Judicial Engagement Teams Make a Difference in Child Welfare Cases

    Michael J. Puerner

    While governed by uniform guidelines, the practice of child welfare law varies from county to county across Wisconsin. Michael Puerner discusses the role of Judicial Engagement Teams: to bring together teams of community stakeholders to identify best practices and implement positive changes in child welfare cases.
    In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.

    This is a quotation attributed to famous New York Yankee catcher and renowned wordsmith Yogi Berra.

    New lawyers quickly become familiar with the truth of this quote – while the law as written may paint one picture of how a case might proceed in court, the practice between different states, different counties, and even different courtrooms in the same courthouse can differ drastically.

    The difference between theory and practice is particularly noticeable in the area of child welfare law. The practice in one jurisdiction or county in a termination of parental rights case can vary greatly in the next jurisdiction or county over. While these differences can certainly frustrate practitioners, they also create disparate outcomes for children and parents, depending on where their cases are held.

    About Judicial Engagement Teams

    Nationwide, there is a movement toward evidence-based best practices in child welfare cases. There are national standards and regional models, aimed to eliminate disparity in outcomes, that are front and center in creating expected, uniform, and trauma-informed outcomes.

    Michael Puerner Michael Puerner, Marquette 2011, is deputy corporation counsel for Marathon County, where his practice includes Children in Need of Protection and Services, Termination of Parental Rights, and minor guardianship cases.

    Judges in Wisconsin have recognized that the implementation of best practices is especially critical when the law directly impacts a child or a family. The Wisconsin Judicial Committee on Child Welfare was established in part to advocate for best practices in child welfare law. This committee, in conjunction with the Wisconsin Children’s Court Improvement Program (CCIP), has helped to bring a creative new partnership to improve child welfare practice in the state: Judicial Engagement Teams (JET).

    Wisconsin was selected as one of eight states to participate in the JET initiative through Casey Family Programs. The goal of the JET initiative is to engage judicial systems to support children and their families involved in the child welfare system. This is accomplished by integrating best practices, data-centered case management, and cross-system collaboration into regular systemwide discussions at the local level.

    JETs are centered on a collaboration between system partners. Teams include members from every aspect of child welfare: Prosecutors, judges, adversary counsel, guardians ad litem, social workers, foster parents, former foster children, and service providers are just some of the many key components of a JET initiative.

    Judicial Engagement Teams in Wisconsin

    In Wisconsin, the JET initiative was piloted in three counties – Dane, Kenosha, and Monroe. Each of those counties developed its own team and focused on particular goals unique to their jurisdiction. Each goal selected by each team focused on implementing a best practice into practical form while recognizing that each county handles a child welfare case a bit differently.

    From its start in those three counties, the JET initiative has been implemented in six additional counties across the state – Barron, Jefferson, Marathon, Marinette, Oconto, and Outagamie counties. The JET initiative expanded to these new localities with the assistance of mentor judges from the pilot counties as well as staff from the Children’s Court Improvement Program. For instance, Kenosha County Judge Jason Rossell dedicated valuable time and experience to the Marathon County JET to help focus and guide the team’s efforts.

    JET initiatives across Wisconsin have resulted in remarkable improvements for children and families. Accomplishments from counties across the state include:

    • reducing the number of children in out-of-home care;

    • expanding family drug treatment courts;

    • implementing earlier and increased legal representation for all parties involved in a child welfare case;

    • using a one judge/one family model;

    • enhancing the quality of hearings and judicial oversight after disposition of cases; and

    • elevating child and parent engagement in the child welfare and court systems.

    JET in Marathon County and Beyond

    In Marathon County, our JET focused on attainable, realistic goals. This collaborative process resulted in positive changes in the local child welfare process.

    Permanency plan reports became more narrowly tailored to fit the specific facts pertinent to the time period examined. Courts took on additional review hearings to expedite reunification in appropriate cases. Perhaps most importantly, lines of communication between the essential parts of the child welfare process were opened and remain intact.

    The JET process and its success and spread across Wisconsin counties demonstrates the value and necessity of communication between partners in the child welfare system. As attorneys, the JET initiative allows us to assist our clients – whether parents, children, placements, or agencies – by improving the entire process and implementing best practices.

    For more information, or to ask about implementation of a Judicial Engagement Team in your neighborhood, take a look at the Children’s Court Improvement Program website.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Children & the Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Children & the Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.

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    Children & the Law Blog is published by the Children & the Law Section and the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Christie Christie and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Children & the Law Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

    © 2021 State Bar of Wisconsin, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.

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