Autism and the Dependency Court

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 44 children have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). With such a high statistic, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court took an interest in how the court process impacted individuals with ASD. In February 2020, at the Pennsylvania Conference of State Trial Judges, the issue of Autism and the Courts took center stage via a four-hour educational session. The session was attended by 186 Judges from across Pennsylvania and was the first time the issue of Autism was highlighted at the Conference. 

Following the educational session’s success, in April 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, along with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS), launched a statewide initiative focused on helping judges better understand and communicate with individuals with ASD. The initiative, led by Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty on behalf of the Court, was a monumental effort and was the first-of-its-kind partnership.

As a result of the work that began with the educational sessions, a decision was made to start examining the issue of ASD with our most vulnerable populations in the child dependency system. In addition, it was determined that the dependency system already had the State Roundtable communication structure in place to handle this type of systemic reform. As such, on September 23, 2021, the Pennsylvania State Roundtable commissioned the Autism and Dependency Courts Taskforce. The Taskforce was asked to examine how the dependency court system could become more aware and responsive to the needs of children and parents diagnosed with ASD. Supreme Court Justice Dougherty, now leading all of Pennsylvania’s Dependency Court Improvement activities, continued to lead the Autism work, including the newly created Taskforce.

In an effort to have representation reflective of Pennsylvania’s diversity, members of the newly created Autism Taskforce were selected from rural and urban communities, all regions of the Commonwealth, and all Leadership Roundtables. Members had varying degrees of knowledge regarding Autism and a significant interest in the topic. In addition, all selected members had an exceptional understanding of the Child Dependency and Child Welfare Systems and a sincere desire to support policy and practice reform. Click here for a list of Autism Taskforce members.

The Taskforce identified its primary goal as follows:

  • To provide a positive dependency court experience for children and parents with ASD by increasing professional awareness and responsiveness.

The overall vision of the Taskforce includes the following:

  • Bringing awareness and education to our justice system,
  • Being able to identify a child or parent with a diagnosis of ASD,
  • Creating a “Roadmap” resource that any county can use to begin their ASD system analysis and reform, and
  • Implementing practice and policy reforms that support positive experiences for all children and parents diagnosed with ASD within the Pennsylvania dependency system.

 (Click here) to view the Autism Taskforce Report and attached tools.