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Teen Court Days

In a Manhattan courtroom, Hector Serrano asked to be discharged from foster care, though he is only 18 and could stay in the system until 21.

Susan Doherty, the referee, whose job is similar to a judge, agreed to this request. Then Hector Serrano had another: Could his brother live with him? “I feel I could be his foster parent.”

Doherty looked surprised. “Well, that is definitely your decision,” she said. “I mean, it would be difficult.”

One final request: Could he still visit his sister, who would soon be adopted?

Yes, she said, every two weeks from now on.

Case finished, Hector smiled, and looked proudly at his foster father and lawyer. He had been part of Teen Court Day at Manhattan Family Court – the one day every few months that Doherty sets aside for cases that only involve teens.

Because our parents do not have legal guardianship over us, children in foster care (as I was until recently) have regular involvement with family court. The court decides where we live, with whom, and for how long. The court also makes sure our privately owned foster care agencies are giving us the support and services to which we are entitled.

For all the court’s involvement in our lives, though, we are not especially encouraged to show up at court. The only times I ever went to court personally were for my siblings’ adoption, and my own. Instead, I went to my law guardian’s office once or twice a year and answered a series of questions. I do not think I even understood how my answers would be used in court, or what court dates meant for me. In retrospect, I wish I had been able to go in front of the judge while I was in care and been brave enough to tell her what was going on in the foster home I lived in for years.

Now, knowing that I could have attended my court dates, I wish I would have had a greater hand in making my own decisions.

More and more people agree that teens should have more of a voice in their own cases. A study last year by the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care found that surprisingly few teens participate in court proceedings. It recommended that courts find ways to include teens in the decision-making on their own cases. The commission also created Home at Last, a non-profit advocacy organization, which has coordinated youth summits all over the country so that young people can tell system leaders why it is important that they have a voice in court.

But at New York’s Youth Summit, recently held at Fordham University, many teens in foster care explained why it has been difficult for them to do so. Some said it would be easier for teens to come to court if there was better transportation for them, or if they had peer educators who helped other teens know what is going on, or if the waits were not so long, or if the dates were not during school hours. As Ronnie Fuchs, director of the Office of Youth Development at the Administration for Children’s Services put it, “We tell you how important school is and then we screw it up by saying, ‘Come to court at 11 a.m.’”

The lawyers seemed surprised by many things the teens said -- Erik Pitchal, director of Fordham University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Family and Child Advocacy, who organized the youth summit, was surprised at how strongly many foster youth want to be in court; Priti Kataria, a project attorney at Lawyers for Children, said she was surprised – and sad – “by how many teens didn’t seem to know who their law guardians were, or how to reach them”;Karen Fisher Gutheil, an attorney at Legal Aid, was the number of teens in foster care who had never been to family court, had not spoken to a judge, and felt that they had not really been able to express their opinions and wants directly. “A lot of the teens felt shut out from a process that is all about them.”

At the end of the summit, New York City’s foster care commissioner, John Mattingly, made a speech, promising us teens, “Your voices will be heard.” Pitchal said he plans to release a report including all the recommendations that came up that day. And Ronnie Fuchs said plans are in the works to make reforms in the court that will encourage youth to participate. “We are having conversations with family court people to make it easier for teens to come to court,” she said. “Things like changing the dates and times of court dates so they do not conflict with school, or setting up a teen center, so instead of a cold, sterile waiting room, you can use computers and there are things to do while you wait.”

She also said the Bronx Family Court will now have a Teen Court Day, as well.

This article by Natasha Santos, 18, a writer for Represent, is adopted from one that originally appeared on the pages of our partner, Youth Communication.  

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