Supreme Court Starts Initiative to Help Kids in Foster Care

Amaris Elliott-Engel

As Kevin Campbell travels around the country, he learns about the worst child abuse cases.

When Campbell, one of the nation’s leading experts on strategies to build support systems for kids infoster care, came to Pennsylvania recently, the fate of Danieal Kelly was on his mind.

Kids like Danieal, the 14-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who starved to death in her mother’s West Philadelphia home in 2006, are kept safe when they’re not isolated from a community that cares about them, Campbell said in an interview during a break in a training session sponsored by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He has led trainings in the western, central and eastern parts of the state.

“The more people care about that kid and are looking in on that kid, the safer they are,” Campbell said.

Campbell’s audience Sept. 5 was made up of social workers, judges and other child welfare officials from 15 counties who will be the first to implement the Supreme Court’s permanency practice initiative that aims to keep children safe and stable by involving their extended family networks in planning their care.

The initiative aims to reduce the number of children in foster care and reduce the cost of keeping children in care.

Supreme Court Justice Max Baer is leading the statewide effort to improve outcomes in the commonwealth’s dependency courts for abused and neglected children. Chester and Montgomery counties, as well as 13 others, are the first counties to join the permanency practice full force. Other counties, including Philadelphia, are also undertaking a revolution in shifting the power from judges and caseworkers to families to decide the future of children in foster care. The state Department of Public Welfare’s Office of Children, Youth and Families is partnering with the court on the initiative.

Sandy Moore, the administrator of the Supreme Court’s Office of Children and Families in the Courts, said some of the practices to promote stability in the lives of kids were identified last year during the statewide children’s roundtable of children’s welfare stakeholders.

The children’s roundtable dialogue led to the Supreme Court’s permanency practice initiatives: reaching out to a wide network of family members to participate in family group decision-making and training social workers from the public sector and the private sector to help families be more self-sufficient, Moore said.

Almost a decade ago, Campbell began developing the strategy of family finding, which helps social workers find relatives and other loved ones who will commit to supporting children in foster care. Family finding feeds into family group decision-making. Family members hold a conference with a mediator to plan the best care for a child. The plan is subject to the approval of the child’s caseworker and the family court judge.

Campbell argues that people need to know where they come from and children in foster care are traumatized and isolated when they are separated from all of their relatives and their roots.

“Family finding finds the families, finds a larger net,” Moore said. “Family group decision-making allows everyone who cares about a child to come together and to create a plan for how they’re going to help protect a child and care for a child. It’s a very powerful process. It’s a process that really allows people closest to a child, who understand that child best, to come up with a plan that is then reviewed.”

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Daniel Anders ordered the first court-involved family group decision-making conference in the First Judicial District.

Anders directed a family to hold a conference after a contentious hearing in a case involving a single mother with five children. After the family convened and agreed upon what services should be in place for the children, the family came back into court 10 days later with smiles on their faces, Anders said. The conference empowered the family and focused on the strengths of the family, the judge added.

Families are more vested in the plans they create than the plans social workers create, and families are able to come up with the safest placement plans because families know things about their relatives that they might not share with unfamiliar social workers, Moore said.

The initiative also asks county courts to conduct three-month reviews, instead of sixmonth reviews, for every child in foster care. The initiative also asks the courts to enter their dependency cases into the state’s dependency case management system.

Most of Pennsylvania’s counties have already started family group decision-making, but Campbell’s family finding model will make their family decision-making conferences more successful, Moore said.

Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty, administrative judge of the family division, said he is working with Philadelphia Department of Human Services Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose on family group decision-making.

The beauty of the “paradigm shift” to family decision-making is family members can be defined to include extended family, close friends, neighbors or anyone with a desire to maintain a family unit, Dougherty said.

“I believe if Philadelphia can implement this practice it will have national recognition,” Dougherty said. “It will have a ripple effect so children across the country can have permanency.”

Laurie O’Connor, director of the Montgomery County Office of Children & Youth, said the practice of maintaining connections between children and their communities assures “the rights of our children and families are best represented when there needs to be intervention by the court.”

Keith Hayes, director of Chester County Department of Children, Youth & Families, said there is some resistance to implementing these practices because “it puts decision making back on the families, not in the hands of professionals, not in the hands of a large bureaucratic system.”

But he said recent developments in the human services field have shattered the myth that caseworkers have all the expertise and families don’t.

“We are determined in Chester County to change the way we do the business in the next few years. We’re adamant,” Hayes said.

Campbell, who has consulted with child welfare systems in 48 states as well as other countries’ systems, has heard all too often the social services myth that children in foster care don’t have family.

But Campbell has learned that while three to eight relatives might be identified in a child welfare record, there might be 100 to 300 living relatives who could provide stability in that child’s life.

During a family finding project Campbell conducted in Cook County, Ill., Campbell said he worked with some of the “loneliest kids” &mdash teenagers who had been in care on average for 14 years, and some who had tried to commit suicide. These were the kids Campbell feared the most for if family finding failed to work for them.

“Who came here to disappoint a disappointed child, who wants to abandon an abandoned child?” he asked.

But when family finding was conducted for these teenagers, the relationships first identified by a social worker endured, grew and evolved without the support of a social worker, Campbell said.

The “loneliest kids” said family finding should be done for every child in foster care, Campbell said.

15 Counties Join Courts Initiative to Improve lives of Dependent Children

HARRISBURG — As part of a statewide initiative to improve the lives of dependent children, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania will hold three training sessions featuring Kevin Campbell — a nationally known youth permanency expert and creator of Family Finding, a strategy aimed at finding lost or forgotten individuals willing to provide lifelong support for abused and neglected children.

State Supreme Court Justice Max Baer, a former administrative judge of family court in Allegheny County who is guiding these efforts on behalf of the Supreme Court, said the training is part of the court’s Permanency Practice Initiative.

“With enhanced judicial oversight and strength-based, family-led practices, our overriding goals are safely to keep children in their homes, return others to their homes, and when staying or returning home is not possible, quickly to find the best alternative permanent home for every child,” Justice Baer said.

More than 300 judges, state, county and private sector children and youth professionals from 15 counties, volunteering to be part of the initiative’s first phase, will be attending training sessions scheduled for:

  • Sept. 3; at the Cranberry Twp. Highland Golf Course, 5601 Freshcorn Rd, Cranberry
  • Sept. 4; at the Administrative Center, 3rd Floor, 28 East Market St., York
  • Sept. 5; at the OIM Southeast Training Ctr., 123 Boro Line Rd, King of Prussia.

The training sessions will run from 9am to 4pm. Your coverage is invited.

The initiative focuses on three practice areas: Family Finding, Family Group Decision Making and Family Development Credentialing.

Family Finding provides professionals with the tools they need to help find relatives and others committed to a child achieving permanency for every child faster and more efficiently.

Pennsylvania Family Group Decision-Making process is designed to join the wider family group, including relatives, friends, community members, and others, in collectively making decisions to resolve an identified family concern.

Family Development Credentialing is designed to be an interagency training for staff from all public, private and non-profit service systems. The program teaches the skills to help front line workers become more effective in assisting individuals and families in taking care of themselves and becoming self-sufficient.

Additional expected outcomes of the initiative are to:

  • Reduce the number of children adjudicated as dependents and in court-ordered placement
  • Reduce the time children spend in the foster care system
  • Reduce the number of children who re-enter care
  • Reduce the dependency court caseload
  • Reduce the cost of children in care
  • Reduce the need for residential and institutional placements, and
  • Increase child placement stability.

The 15 counties (see attached) in the first phase of this initiative will be enhancing child services and practices, including the implementation of Family Finding, and three-month reviews for every child in the foster care system. Typically court review hearings are held every six months.

In addition, if the counties are not already doing so, they will be actively entering all dependency cases into the state’s computerized Common Pleas Case Management System Dependency Module, designed to track more than 30 performance measures recommended by the National Council for Juvenile and Family Court, the National Center for State Courts and the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law. The detailed computerized tracking of dependency cases promises to provide vital statistics for the court’s efforts to help children and families.

Other counties will be joining this initiative in 2009, with an expectation that all counties in Pennsylvania will move to this type of Permanency Practice.

The Supreme Court’s efforts are led by Sandy Moore, Administrator of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts’ Office of Children & Families in the Court (OCFC), in close partnership with the state Department of Public Welfare’s Office of Children, Youth & Families. Additional support and guidance for the initiative is provided by The Pennsylvania Family Group Decision Making Leadership Team, the Statewide Adoption Permanency Network, the Community Action Association of Pennsylvania, and the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work and Child Welfare Training Program.

The OCFC, created in October 2006 by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, is funded with federal grants from the Court Improvement Project run by the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In addition to the Permanency Practice Initiative a series of rules changes designed to speed the appellate process for children living in unstable or impermanent homes has been proposed earlier this month by the Appellate Court Procedural Rules Committee of the Supreme Court.

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Editors Note: State Supreme Court Justice Max Baer and Sandy Moore, Administrator of the Office of Children & Families in the Courts, will be attending the training session on Sept. 3, and will be available for comment by phone on all three training-session days.

Rules Changes Proposed to Speed Cases for Children

HARRISBURG — A series of rules changes designed to speed cases for children living in unstable or impermanent homes have been proposed by the Appellate Court Procedural Rules Committee of the Supreme Court.

Some of the children the proposals are intended to help are victims of abuse or neglect. These children have been removed from their parents under court order and are living in foster care or in other temporary homes. Other children are awaiting adoption while legal disputes play out over parental rights. Still others are at the center of custody battles between warring parents.

The proposed appellate rules changes would expedite the process by which these and other types of children’s cases would advance on appeal from the trial courts to be heard in the Superior Court and the Supreme Court.

“We’re talking about children’s lives,” said Superior Court Judge Maureen E. Lally-Green who chairs the Appellate Court Procedural Rules Committee and co-chairs a subcommittee that developed the rules-change proposals. “Each day in the life of a child is a very valuable time. That is why the focus here is on time in the appeals process. We tried to see if some of that time could be shaved down. The answer is, ‘Yes.’”

Lally-Green said the effort to accelerate children’s cases does not mean that legal issues involved in those appeals would be shortchanged on appellate review. She said every case will receive full and thorough review. The goal of the rules changes, she said, is to reduce the time normally consumed as an appeal moves toward that review and a court decision.

The rules change proposals are designed to strengthen and expand the existing “Family Fast Track” program that has operated in Superior Court since 2000. Under this program, appeals have been accelerated internally at the court in cases involving adoption, child custody, dependency (child abuse and neglect), paternity and involuntary termination of parental rights.

Under the proposed rules changes, these types of cases now would be accelerated externally as well. The cases would be given compressed filing deadlines from the first notice that a trial judge’s ruling is to be appealed and at each step of the appeals process thereafter.

All fast track cases would be stamped by court clerks with the words “Family Fast Track” in red ink to ensure that these cases are not overlooked in docketing or in the filing process. The Superior Court would be given special notice of fast track appeals.

The proposed rules changes include a dozen compressed filing deadlines for fast track cases. While 30 days is the allowable period for filing an appeal from Common Pleas Court in a criminal case, for example, the appeal time in a Family Fast Track case would be just 21 days. While the record of a lower court case normally must be transmitted to an appellate court in 60 days, that deadline would cut in half for fast track cases and reduced to 30 days.

A separate but related effort is under way to accelerate the process of transcribing the records of lower court proceedings. Transcript delays also can slow the appellate process.

The proposed rule changes were developed by a Dependency Subcommittee of the Appellate Court Procedural Rules Committee. The subcommittee is co-chaired by Judge Lally-Green and Fredrick N. Frank, a Pittsburgh domestic relations lawyer.

“Many states are expediting appeals for children so they are not caught up in the appellate process any longer than they need be,” said Frank. “Time lost in a child’s life is not something we can put back.”

The effort to expedite the appellate process is supported by the Office of Children and Families in the Courts which was formed within the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts in 2006. The mission of the Office of Children and Families in the Courts is to achieve more rapid placement of abused and neglected children in permanent homes. There are about 20,000 such children in the commonwealth.

“The overall goal here is to safeguard the rights of all parties while minimizing delays for children,” said Sandra Moore, administrator of the Office of Children and Families in the Courts. “The committee’s work is a huge step toward expediting permanency for Pennsylvania’s abused and neglected children.”

The proposed rules changes are posted for public comment on the Web site of Pennsylvania’s Unified Judicial System at and will be published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin later this month.

Juvenile Court Services Will Be Bid

Michael P. Buffer, The Citizens’ Voice

Luzerne County President Judge Mark Ciavarella is soliciting juvenile court services through a legal ad — something the judiciary didn’t do when obtaining juvenile services from Dr. Frank Vita, a psychologist and brother-in-law of Senior Judge Michael Conahan.

The county has paid Vita more than $850,000 for juvenile probation services since 2004, and his rate is $90 an hour. County Commissioners Maryanne Petrilla and Stephen A. Urban objected by saying the commissioners should have approved a contract with Vita, and they claimed the county’s purchasing policy required an advertised request for the services. The policy requires an advertised request for professional services that cost $7,500 or more.

Professional services are exempt from state-purchasing mandates on bidding and advertising, and Ciavarella has argued the judiciary only has to follow state law and is not bound by requirements and policies from the commissioners.

But Ciavarella did agree to advertise a request for the following juvenile court services: youth development activities program, forensic psychological testing and outreach prevention. Responses are due May 30.

Vita has been paid from the judicial budget line item that funds juvenile placement transfers, and the state has funded 80 percent of those costs through the county Children and Youth Services, an agency controlled by the commissioners.

Last month, the Children and Youth agency advertised a request for psychological counseling services, and the agency got three responses, including one from Vita, County Manager/Chief Clerk Doug Pape said. Vita has not responded to that request previously, but the state Department of Public Welfare is changing how it funds psychological services for children, Pape explained.

The state wants counties to start using the medical assistance program to fund psychological services for eligible children, officials said.


©The Citizens Voice 2008

Giving Kids a Better Chance

Linda Metz

For nearly two months, Washington County has been developing a new system that ultimately would reduce the time abused and neglected children spend in foster homes.

The new automated dependence tracking module is the first of its kind in the nation.

“It’s good for the kids, and it’s good government,” said Washington County Judge Mark Mascara, who took on the job of implementing the new system at the request of state Supreme Court Justice Max Baer.

According to Mascara, the new system uses the Common Pleas Court Management System that allows the court to quickly look at a case and take the needed steps to speed up the process of getting a child into a permanent home.

“State law mandates that we take a look at each case every six months. But six months is a lifetime for a child,” said Mascara.

The judge added that this way, “children are less likely to languish in dependency.”

Mascara said it could possibly cut months off the average time it takes to review a case.

It took cooperation from the staffs at Mascara’s office, and the offices of Clerk of Courts Barbara Gibbs and Children and Youth Services. The team worked with members of the state Office of Children and Families in Courts.

“On any given day in Pennsylvania, there are tens of thousands of dependent children in foster homes or temporary residential settings because they have been abused or neglected,” said Sandy Moore, administrator of the OCFC.

She added, “They can wait, in some cases, for years before being placed in a permanent home. That’s too many children in the court system, and it’s far too long for dependent children to wait to be placed in a permanent home where they have a better chance for successful lives.”

The new system is now being used in Bucks and Northampton county courts. It’s expected to be implemented statewide by year’s end.

Copyright Observer Publishing Co.

States Take Aim at Reducing Number of Children in Foster Care

NGA Center Picks Six States for Policy Academy Dedicated to Improving Outcomes for Vulnerable Children

WASHINGTON — Recognizing that there are too many children in foster care and that their safety and well-being may be improved by other means, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) has selected six states—Arkansas, Florida, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and South Carolina—to participate in a policy academy to safely reduce the number of children in foster care. The academy is being conducted in partnership with Casey Family Programs, a Seattle-based foundation committed to safely reducing nationwide the number of children in foster care by 50 percent by 2020.

During the last two decades, the number of children in foster care has nearly doubled. However, there is growing recognition that with appropriate services and supports to the families, many of these children could safely remain at home and avoid the trauma of separation from their home and community. For children who must enter foster care, they are more likely to have positive outcomes when placed in family-like settings and quickly reunited with their family, placed with kin or adopted.

This policy academy offers state teams, made up of representatives from governors’ offices, state child welfare agencies, other relevant state agencies and stakeholders, the opportunity to work with national and state experts to improve outcomes for children and youth who come to the attention of the child welfare system.

“Most children in foster care have been removed from their homes because of neglect or abuse to ensure their own safety and well-being,” said John Thomasian, director of the NGA Center. “This policy academy will help states devise strategies for reducing the number of children in foster care while improving long-term outcomes for vulnerable children.”

During the course of the academy, states will develop a two-year strategic plan to reduce the number of children in foster care while ensuring that safety remains paramount. The plans will focus on reducing the number of children entering care, shortening length of stay for those in care and/or improving permanency outcomes to reduce returns to care, as well as strategies for sustaining effort over time.

By the end of 2008, participating states are expected to:

  • Improve their understanding of the state’s child welfare data trends and what drives those trends;
  • Improve collaboration among mental health, substance abuse, child welfare and other systems;
  • Develop a plan that identifies outcomes the state wants to achieve and strategies for achieving them, specific action steps with timelines for moving forward and a plan for tracking progress and measuring success; and
  • Identify new, increased or redirected funding to support and sustain the state’s work.

For more information, visit


Founded in 1908, the National Governors Association (NGA) is the collective voice of the nation’s governors and one of Washington, D.C.’s most respected public policy organizations. Its members are the governors of the 50 states, three territories and two commonwealths. NGA provides governors and their senior staff members with services that range from representing states on Capitol Hill and before the Administration on key federal issues to developing and implementing innovative solutions to public policy challenges through the NGA Center for Best Practices. For more information, go to

Improvement Project for Dependency Courts Moves Forward

Amaris Elliott-Engel

The 40-year-old goal of unifying Pennsylvania’s courts has moved forward with a court improvement project under Supreme Court Justice Max Baer’s authority to better the outcomes in the commonwealth’s dependency courts for abused and neglected children.

Since the Constitution of 1968 reorganized the judiciary into the Unified Judicial System, various efforts, some of them unsuccessful, have been undertaken to truly unite the courts of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. But in recent years, Pennsylvania’s Court Improvement Project has been embraced by family court stakeholders in order to change courtroom practices and share information across jurisdictions, according to a six-member panel speaking during the National Forum on Children, Families and the Courts held last week.

Pennsylvania became the last state in the country to accept court improvement federal funding for dependency cases involving neglected and abused children, said Sandra E. Moore, administrator of the Office of Children and Families in the Courts within the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

Now that the court improvement project is up and running, participants in the project have embraced the development of a curriculum for judges that allows families involved in dependency cases to direct decision-making in the cases and the development of a unified computer case-management system for all of the state’s dependency courts.

Without unified data collection, it is unclear how many children in the state are in placement and what form those placements are taking, Moore said.

Prior to the project’s institution, each of Pennsylvania’s counties were “67 fiefdoms, 67 sovereign, independent countries,” said Baer, who spent 15 years in Allegheny County’s family division, including five and a half years as the division’s administrative judge. He said he believes that the project is combating the tendency of counties to be insular and unaware of best practices being deployed in other counties.

The panel for the “Order Out of Chaos: Organizing Coherent Change in a County-Based System” session also included Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, administrative judge of Allegheny County’s family division; Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty, administrative judge of Philadelphia County’s family division; Indiana County Common Pleas Judge Carol Hanna; and Dauphin County Common Pleas Judge Todd A. Hoover.

Moore became administrator of the Office of Children and Families in the Courts in January. The office operates under Baer’s direction. Baer is also the liaison justice for the Court Improvement Project, which operates under the aegis of the Office of Children and Families in the Courts.

Under the project, each county convenes a children’s roundtable of county-level stakeholders in the welfare of children. A smaller number of children’s roundtable members participate in regional leadership roundtables. And an even more select number of leadership roundtable members participate in a state roundtable that makes grassroots-based decisions on the development of a unified child welfare system. All of the panelists at last Thursday’s event are part of the statewide roundtable.

Baer stressed that participation in the roundtable structure is not mandatory for any county.

Hanna said that the project presents an “ambiguous time” because the future of the shape of the state’s dependency courts is unclear. But she said that the roundtable system allows for local control while providing more statewide resources to implement best practices.

Many counties have embraced the goal of “one judge, one family,” or keeping the same judge involved in a family’s juvenile and domestic relations cases. Hanna joked she is “one judge, every family” for her rural county of 88,000. Fifty-five children are placed out of their homes in her county.

Clark noted that Allegheny County is also trying to cross-train its judges to hear different types of family court cases and is undertaking “cultural competency” training for court officials and other staff to deal appropriately with the diverse population moving through Allegheny County’s court system.

Her county’s only concern about a statewide dependency system is interfacing its e-filing system with the state’s case management system. However, Clark said the statewide system will help judges and other court officials understand if courts are doing right by kids.

Funding is also an issue for Allegheny County, so that judicial district is looking toward the private sector for funding, she said. Allegheny County has a population of 1.28 million and has 2,207 children placed out of home and a total of 3,371 active dependency cases.

Hoover said he was thrilled that Baer is pushing the family group decision-making under the court improvement project because he unsuccessfully tried to attract the interest of other dependency judges in the practice before. He has learned that judicial leadership can convert social practices. Dauphin County has a population of 253,000 and 365 children placed out of home.

Dougherty is a supporter of the family-decision making model for dependency court because it takes away power from judges and Department of Human Services and gives power to families.

Dougherty said he is troubled that the majority of children in placement in Philadelphia are black. Of a population of 1.45 million, 6,123 children are in out-of-home placement and 806 are being supervised in their homes. Of the city’s 93 judges, 25 are assigned to family court.

While Philadelphia initially was reluctant about the court improvement project because the city’s family court used to exclusively receive those dollars, Dougherty said the new system has gotten the city’s three stakeholders in the care of children — the city DHS, the city’s school system and family court — to the same table.

The project also has united practitioners from different regions in the state with historic urban-rural, or city rivalry divisions, he said.

“It’s time we put our children before money,” Dougherty said. “It’s time we work to make sure the collective intelligence in our roundtable is listened to and not just heard.”

Baer told the out-of-state attendees in the audience that the project will take “Pennsylvania from a disjointed state … to a state everyone knows about.”

Report Issued on the “State of the Commonwealth’s Courts”

HARRISBURG — Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille today issued a report on the State of the Commonwealth’s Courts for 2008 outlining goals and discussing highlights of the past year.

The report is the third annual overview of Pennsylvania’s Unified Judicial System issued by the chief justice in behalf of the Supreme Court in the last three years.

In the report, Castille credits former Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy, who retired early this year, for his efforts to improve the Pennsylvania courts through judicial automation, specialized treatment courts, improved judicial education and other programs.

“As Pennsylvania’s new Chief Justice, I intend to continue those programs and to begin other programs in keeping with the Supreme Court’s constant commitment to improve the administration of justice,” Castille writes.

Among the innovations cited in the report is a statewide jury information system through which more potential jurors will be identified for inclusion in county jury pools. The aim is to increase citizen participation and expand diversity on juries. Utilizing data from state executive branch agencies, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) is compiling a statewide master list from which data identifying potential jurors will be provided to each county this fall.

The report also discusses a new educational video on the Pennsylvania court system which is designed for use in jury assembly rooms and by judges or lawyers when speaking in schools or to community groups. The 15-minute video was commissioned by the AOPC and may be viewed through a link at

“A lack of understanding of how our government works and the loss of civics as a component of basic education is potentially the most serious threat we face when we speak of threats to judicial independence,” Castille writes in the report.

Other topics discussed in the State of the Commonwealth’s Courts report include:

  • Problem-solving courts. A decade ago, Philadelphia Municipal Court began its drug court on an experimental basis, the first “problem-solving court” in Pennsylvania. There now are more than 50 such courts in the state, including drug courts, DUI courts and mental health courts.
  • Benchbooks. These volumes are a new professional tool being developed within the court system. The first, released in 2007, was the Public Health Law Benchbook, for use by Pennsylvania judges in the event of a pandemic or other public health emergency. A more recent volume is the Sexual Violence Benchbook, issued this year to assist judges with the complex and changing body of law relating to sex crimes.
  • Automation. Pennsylvania continues to be a national leader in statewide judicial automation. Appellate court opinions and dockets are available online. Criminal case dockets also are available online statewide. In the state’s 546 magisterial district courts, the second generation of technology now is underway, an upgrade that is expected to take five years. These courts were first automated in 1992.

A copy of this year’s State of the Commonwealth’s Courts report may be seen at the Pennsylvania Judiciary’s Web site at:

New Video on the Court System Introduced by AOPC

HARRISBURG — Under the sponsorship of the Supreme Court, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts has created a 15-minute video that explains how the Pennsylvania courts are organized and why they are important to individual freedom in a Democracy.

The video, titled “Pennsylvania’s Unified Judicial System,” is intended to be an educational tool to be used to inform school students and adults about the functioning of Pennsylvania’s court system. The film is designed for use by judges and others when they visit schools or speak to community groups. It may also be shown in jury assembly rooms in county courthouses and via planned, stand-alone kiosks in the state capitol and the new Pennsylvania Judicial Center.

“An increasingly important role for every judge is that of being an educator,” said Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille. “Judges must find time, and take time, to speak and write about what they do as judges and to explain why a strong and independent judiciary is essential to our basic freedoms and to our tripartite system of government. The loss of civics education is potentially the most serious threat we face when we speak of threats to judicial independence.”

The video explains how the Pennsylvania court system is structured and how various types of legal cases advance through the system. It is aimed at a broad public audience and is being distributed to the president judges of all Common Pleas Courts. If played daily in jury assembly rooms, more than 200,000 people summoned to jury duty each year will see the film.

The video may be viewed by the public at Pennsylvania’s Unified Judicial System Web site at Web users with Java can click on the video within “Site News,” others can click on the first item in the drop down “Jump to a page in this list.”

The AOPC also is working with the Pennsylvania Coalition for Representative Democracy (PennCORD) to find educational uses for the film. PennCORD, which seeks to improve civics education in public schools, is led by Pennsylvania First Lady and Third Circuit Judge Midge Rendell. Participants in PennCORD include the Pennsylvania Bar Association, the National Constitution Center and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The video script was written by Superior Court Judge Jack Panella. The narrator is Ron Martin, co-anchor of WGAL-TV in Lancaster. The video was a collaborative effort of the AOPC, the Judicial Independence Commission of the Supreme Court and the Commission for Justice Initiatives of the Pennsylvania Bar Association. JPL Productions, of Harrisburg, provided professional and technical services in the production.

Washington County First in State to Implement Child Dependency Data Tracking System

HARRISBURG — The state Supreme Court today announced that the Washington County Common Pleas Court was the first to begin detailed tracking of dependency cases as part of a statewide effort to make Pennsylvania’s courts more responsive to the needs of children and families and to reduce the time abused and neglected children spend in foster homes. This new computer system is the first of its kind in the nation, and will move Pennsylvania far ahead of other states in understanding what is occurring within its child welfare population.

This represents one of the first innovations of the Office of Children and Families in the Courts (OCFC), which is coordinating Pennsylvania’s efforts to improve the lives of its abused and neglected children. State Supreme Court Justice Max Baer, a former administrative judge of family court in Allegheny County, who is guiding these efforts on behalf of the Supreme Court, said, “We will enhance and standardize the collection of child dependency information throughout the state, assuring that judges and other child welfare professionals are given the necessary data and resources to solve the local and state-wide problems which are impeding efforts to assure that every Pennsylvania child grows up in a quality permanent home.”

Sandy Moore, administrator of the OCFC, added, “On any given day in Pennsylvania, there are tens of thousands of dependent children in foster homes or temporary residential settings because they have been abused and/or neglected. They can wait, in some cases, for years before being placed in a permanent home. That’s too many children in the court system and it’s far too long for dependent children to wait to be placed in a permanent home where they have a better chance for successful lives.”

Washington County Judge Mark Mascara, who hears dependency cases, said, “It is an honor to be the first in the state to begin collecting and tracking details regarding child dependency cases. I applaud our court staff, our Clerk of Courts, Barbara Gibbs and our agency personnel assigned to this task, all of whom spent weeks with the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts’ computer staff to pilot this effort. Our President Judge, Debbie O’Dell Seneca, has also been very supportive. It has been a collaborative effort which has improved how we handle these important cases.”

In addition to Washington County, the system is being piloted in the common pleas courts of Bucks and Northampton counties. The statewide county rollout of the dependency tracking system begins with this effort, and is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.

For more information on Pennsylvania’s overall Dependency Court Improvement Project, court officials and dependency advocates can contact the OCFC at 717-295-2000 ext 4255.

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Editor’s Note: The OCFC joins other recent initiatives of the Supreme Court designed to modernize and improve the court system throughout Pennsylvania. Those initiatives include, among others, programs that provide trained court interpreters; assist in the establishment of specialty — or problem-solving — courts, such drug and DUI courts; and train judges in general and specialized areas of jurisprudence, using the most advanced educational techniques available.