Heard and Not Seen
It’s a familiar children’s refrain that knows no boundaries, whether geographical, generational or financial: “Nobody listens to me.” But it’s got a ring of truth, especially when it comes to making decisions that affect kids’ lives and futures.
The family court system in the United Kingdom, through its Department for Constitutional Affairs, decided to give kids a voice. Last September, the British authorities launched a Web site offering youths the opportunity to weigh in on proposals for updating the family court system.
Youngsters were asked their views on topics such as new guidelines for providing children with representation in parental dissolution cases, and direct communication with judges about the child’s wishes regarding parental custody and visitation. Another question was whether they should have a legal right to full access to case records once they reach the age of majority.
“A child’s life can be irrevocably affected by a decision of the family courts, and I want their opinions to be fully considered as we develop plans to improve the family courts. The Internet allows young people to tell us what they think, safely [and] anonymously,” says Harriet Harman, the minister for family justice.
Some of the responses were poignant. One child wrote of cousins whom the court ordered to spend time with a verbally abusive father and of the court’s unwillingness to hear from the children about why they didn’t want to visit him. The writer said that she was 12, and that she didn’t know how to ease the misery of her cousins, one of whom has a form of autism. If judges were required to interview children before ruling on custody, she wrote, perhaps her cousins wouldn’t be in such dire straits.
The site, which closed to tabulate the responses, also asked children and families to weigh in on the idea of opening family courts to the media and others not directly related to the case, since family law cases in Britain are now closed-door. Few respondents favored public scrutiny.
In the U.S., Courts have also begun to acknowledge the value of input from children affected by decisions about their care and placement.
(The ABA Connection feature, “The Youngest Clients,” page 56, discusses the growing trend of direct legal representation for children.)
Courts overseeing neglect, dependency and delinquency are the most likely to try to seek input from kids currently or recently under the courts’ jurisdiction, according to Christopher Wu of San Francisco, the supervising attorney for the Center for Families, Children and the Courts, which is part of California’s court administrative office.
“Seeking input from kids is certainly a trend in abuse and neglect courts, though not as much in divorce custody because kids aren’t actually regarded as parties to parents’ dissolution cases,” Wu says.
Courts are reluctant to interfere with parents’ rights to decide custody in cases where the parents have not been found unfit. The courts are simply there to approve agreements between the parents in most circumstances regarding custody, unless insurmountable tension develops.
Wu notes that California requires mandatory mediation in divorce custody cases, and most mediators interview children. California also conducts focus groups about court improvement, and many participants include former wards of the court.
Bruce A. Boyer, a law professor at Loyola University in Chicago, says that more courts and practitioners now agree that children should be further involved in proceedings that will result in decisions about their futures.
But as a practical matter, he says, many lawyers and judges cringe at talking in front of the child about the child’s abuse or neglect at the hands of a parent.
Boyer says children deserve to have their voices heard and to participate in court proceedings. Judges can exercise discretion based on a child’s age and maturity, as well as the content of testimony, as to when they should be temporarily kept out of the courtroom, he adds.