PRESS RELEASE
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Chief Judge O'Connell launches two pilot programs in Child Protection Division

Released On 01/29/2001

Cook County Chief Judge Donald P. O'Connell announced the Circuit Court of Cook County will begin a Child Protection Mediation Program and a Benchmark Permanency Hearing Program in the Child Protection Division effective February 6, 2001.

"Both pilot programs will offer expanded services designed to help the court make better informed decisions that ultimately will improve the lives of children and teens under the jurisdiction of the Child Protection Division," said Chief Judge O'Connell. "I commend Child Protection Division Presiding Judge Patricia Martin Bishop for her vision and drive in facilitating the implementation of the two programs."

Cases heard in the Child Protection Division involve child abuse, neglect and dependency, private guardianship and termination of parental rights. Judge Martin Bishop said, "The Child Protection Mediation Program provides an opportunity for every individual involved in a child's case to bring their issues and concerns to the table and have them dealt with in a constructive manner. Mediation provides the opportunity for everyone involved to be heard and to participate in crafting plans to protect a child's safety and to resolve problems that brought the case before the court."

"The Benchmark Permanency Hearing Program will help the court ensure that teen wards who reach the age when they must depart the foster care system will be prepared for adulthood," said Judge Martin Bishop, who will conduct the hearings. "The program will accomplish this by focusing on the teen's future from the teen's perspective and by making sure that the teen receives the necessary support and follow-up during and after his or her transition to independent living."

The Child Protection Mediation Program will be tested in the courtrooms of Judge Candace J. Fabri and Judge Dennis J. Burke, two of the sixteen Child Protection Division judges. The mediation pilot is limited to neglect and dependency cases that do not involve child abuse.

For the pilot cases, whenever a dispute over visitation or returning the child or children to the home arises, the matter will be referred to mediation.

Possible mediation participants will include parents; extended family; children (when age appropriate and with the consent of the child's attorney); attorneys for the parties; foster parents; caseworkers and service providers; family supporters such as neighbors, friends or clergy; and others involved with the family or court process who have a stake in protecting the child.

Mediation will be conducted by mediators who in addition to their formal mediation training will receive training specifically addressing neglect and dependency issues. Mediation sessions are expected to last two to three hours. If an agreement is reached, the details of the agreement will be put in writing with all parties receiving copies. The next day court is in session, the judge will receive the written agreement for judicial review and approval. Upon the judge's approval, the mediated agreement becomes a binding order of the court. If no agreement is reached through mediation, the case will be referred back to court.

Judge Martin Bishop thanked the Child Protection Advisory Work Group and its Long Term Vision of the Court Subcommittee for approaching the court with a child protection mediation proposal. The Child Protection Advisory Group includes representatives of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the Offices of the State's Attorney, the Public Guardian and the Public Defender, and other members of the legal and social services community. The group meets regularly to address issues that impact the Child Protection Division.

The Benchmark Permanency Hearing Program is a special court call focusing on teenage wards who have been abused or neglected. The goal of the Benchmark Permanency Hearing Program is to assist teen wards who must begin to plan for adulthood so that they will lead happy and productive lives when they eventually depart the foster care system. The hearings will build on existing programs and engage the teen ward in an assessment of his or her strengths and needs, develop a plan for transition to adulthood and independence, and line up future community and individual support.

At a typical permanency hearing the court identifies a long-term permanency goal for a child such as reunification with parents, adoption or private guardianship, and then reviews the plan to achieve that goal. Benchmark Permanency Hearings will differ from regular permanency hearings in several ways. While a regular permanency hearing is held every six months for a child with a case pending in the Child Protection Division, a Benchmark Permanency Hearing will occur at certain milestones in the case and life of the teen ward. The term "benchmark" refers to the scheduling of the hearings to coincide with these key stages of a teen ward's involvement in the foster care system.

In regular permanency hearings, it is not uncommon for neither the child nor his or her parents to attend. Under the Benchmark Permanency Hearing Program, a teen ward will attend and participate along with a supportive adult selected by the teen. In cases where the teen ward does not have a relative, adoptive parent, guardian or other person who is willing to act as a supportive adult, the court will make every effort to identify a mentor for that teen.

Regular permanency hearings are formal procedures conducted by hearing officers subject to a judge's approval. In contrast, the Benchmark Permanency Hearings will be conducted by a judge in an informal setting. Teens will prepare for the Benchmark Permanency Hearings by submitting a written statement of their goals and concerns to the judge.

Other elements to be covered at Benchmark Permanency Hearings will include the following: life skills assessment and training; vocational and career planning; health care; counseling; identification of federal benefits and other public assistance available for the teen; and housing. For teens with special needs, financial assistance benefits will be identified. Also, the Benchmark Permanency Hearing will review a teen's current relationship with his or her birth family for possible return home or other contact with parents or relatives.

Participants at the hearing will include a teen's caseworker and attorneys from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the Offices of the State's Attorney, Public Guardian and Public Defender. Other participants may include individuals able to provide pertinent information on the teen's school, medical or vocational background. For example, for teens attending the Chicago Public Schools, a Chicago Public Schools representative will attend to provide information about each teen's educational history and current information on enrollment and attendance. The Chicago Public Schools representative will also advise hearing participants on appropriate programs and services offered by the Chicago Public Schools and how to access those programs and services.

Progress on plans made at the Benchmark Permanency Hearings will be monitored through hearings scheduled on the calendar to which a teen's case is assigned.

 

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