Understanding the Youth Participation Court Program in New Jersey
Your child has been removed from your care and placed with a relative or with a stranger in resource care (foster care) for over 11 months. You have been told by your caseworker and attorney that you have to go to court for a permanency hearing. You have also been informed that your child will be appearing in court today but you have no idea why or what to expect.
This is a very difficult and confusing time for you, and you may be wondering why your child may appear in court during one of these child welfare hearings. This article explains, step by step, why your child is allowed to go to court, how it will affect you as a parent and the case, what rights you have, and what you and your child should expect.
Why are children being allowed to participate in court?
Many states have laws that allow children to attend their own child welfare hearings while they remain in out-of-home care. Both child welfare and court professionals recognize the importance of having children involved in the court process. The focus of these programs is to provide these children a direct voice to the fact finder, most often a judge. As a result, beginning in 2017 New Jersey created a new pilot program in three counties that is designed to involve and encourage more children in the court process. This program is called Youth Participation in Court. The three counties are Essex, Burlington, and Sussex. Since 2017, this pilot has become statewide and requires youth participation.
What is a permanency hearing?
If your child is in an out-of-home placement (in foster care or with a relative) and a year has gone by, the court will hold what is called a permanency hearing. In this hearing, the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P) will present the court with its plan for a permanent living situation for your child. The court will either approve that plan or not.
DCP&P may provide the court with a plan for reunification, termination of parental rights, adoption, kinship legal guardianship, or another long-term plan for your child. You as a parent also have a right to provide the court with a plan that you create, but this does not mean that the judge will accept your plan. The judge will take your plan into consideration when making the final decision. If you do have a plan or would like to address DCP&P’s plan, ask your attorney to help
How does the Youth Participation Court Program affect me as a parent?
Before the permanency hearing, your child will receive written notice and will be encouraged to go to court and talk to the judge.
How will I know if my child is allowed to go to court?
Your attorney or you, if you’re not represented, will receive notice before the permanency hearing about whether your child will be involved in the court process. Once you have been notified that your child will be participating in court, talk to your attorney so you can be better prepared.
I’ve received notice that my child will be participating in court. Now what?
What happens after my child receives notice?
Once your child is provided notice, the law guardian will have a discussion with your child about participating in court. The law guardian will ask your child if he or she wants to participate and address any concerns. Your child’s participation in court will be encouraged but will never be forced.
If your child wishes to participate but wants to do so in private, without you present, the law guardian will make sure that your child participates in a comfortable way.
If your child wishes to participate, the law guardian and DCP&P will prepare your child for the court appearance. After the hearing, DCP&P and the law guardian will explain to your child what happened in the hearing and how it will affect him or her. Transportation will be provided to ensure that all children who wish to appear in court have the opportunity to do so.
Can I object to my child participating in court?
Yes. A parent or a party other than the child may object to the child’s court attendance no later than five days before the permanency hearing. However, the objection will not stop your child from going to court. When an objection is made, the court will try to understand why you object. For example, you would like to make an objection because you are concerned that your daughter may say something that will hurt your case or is untrue because the last time you spoke with your daughter she was upset with you. In such a situation, raise your concerns with your attorney, or directly with the judge before making an objection if you do not have a lawyer. Remember, the youth’s participation is to encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings, but not to make any court determination. If your objection is related to a concern like seeing another relative in court, you can raise these concerns with your attorney to the judge, and the judge along with the rest of parties will address them before your child goes to court.
How will my child participate?
Your child may participate in the permanency hearing in different ways depending on how your child feels most comfortable and what the judge believes is best.
The judge may decide to interview your child in chambers. This means that your child will speak directly to the judge hearing the case in his office (chambers). The judge may decide who is allowed in the chambers and whether it will be broadcast simultaneously or recorded to be heard later. Other times, the judge may decide to have your child appear in open court from the witness stand.
The judge may ask general questions to get to know your child but will typically ask what your child would like to share. Anyone is free to submit questions to ask your child, but this is not usually done because this is an opportunity for your child to be heard.
Survey of Youth Participation in Court Program
At the end of the hearing, all the parties, including you, the parent, will be asked to complete a survey about their experience with having a child appear in court through this program. This is your opportunity to express your thoughts and concerns about the program. The surveys are anonymous, meaning that your name and other personal information will not be revealed.
Going to court and seeing your child in court can be a very difficult experience. Understanding how this program works and how it affects you can help you prepare to see your child in court and feel better about the court process. For more advice on this matter, speak with your lawyer. If you have any questions about this pilot program, please feel free to contact Legal Services of New Jersey’s Family Representation Project by calling LSNJLAWSM, LSNJ’s statewide, toll-free legal hotline, at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529).
This information last reviewed: Jul 16, 2020