Since the passage of the 1997 Federal Adoption and Safe Families Act by the Massachusetts Legislature in 1999, the Juvenile Court has been aware of the importance of the timeliness of cases involving child abuse and neglect and ultimately, in some cases, the termination of parental rights. When each department of the Trial Court developed its time standards, the timelines imposed by the statute provided the basis for the time standards.
But it is fair to say that careful attention to timeliness was not always possible, given judicial resources, physical constraints on where cases could be heard, and an insufficient number of attorneys in some parts of the commonwealth who were certified to handle these cases.
When we implemented CourTool measurements and set ambitious goals, we had to re-examine what had been perceived as barriers and find ways to problem-solve in more creative ways. We continue to struggle every day with some persistent barriers, but the landscape has changed dramatically.
Everyone clearly knows what the goals are and that we will not accept that we cannot do it. Rather, we will continue to find ways to hear and decide these cases in a timely manner.
We may decide to move a case to a county with greater judicial resources and we may specially assign a judge for a particular case and try to cover that judge’s regular session. We continue our efforts to refer these cases to permanency mediation, a highly successful program resulting in permanent placements for children in far less time than had the case gone to trial.
More importantly, the judges, clerks and staff all recognize and support these efforts. The attorneys on the cases are well aware of the time standards and understand that their requests for continuances, stays and motion hearings must be within allowable time frames.
Most importantly, we have been able to provide children with safe, stable and permanent homes in a timely manner, so they do not languish in substitute care unnecessarily and can start to adjust to their new environments as quickly as possible.