According to organizers, courtrooms can be stifling and overwhelming for youth - a robed judge, an armed bailiff and strict rules can make youth feel like they've done something wrong when the hearings' purpose is to evaluate the foster care that youth are in. So BCFS Health and Human Services' Lubbock Transition Center now monitors everything from a child's education to their quality of life in foster care.
Judge Kevin Hart, who approached the transition center about this project, said that a different setting for these hearings can help youth focus on what's really important, while making them comfortable enough to share more details about their lives.
"Many times we're focusing on things that are important for the youth that they don't see as important at the moment," Hart said. "In a young woman's hearing recently, we were discussing her education, where she could live, and mapping out her future, but the most important thing to her at that moment was, would she be able to get a prom dress! The same day, a young man was wondering if he'd be able to get a senior ring. Holding court at the center helps us to address those issues that would otherwise be buried in a court proceeding, and helps us remember what it's like to be 17 or 18 again."
Kami Jackson, the director of the transition center, said when this started in August of 2011, this was something that no other organization in Texas was doing. The idea had the potential to make foster youth feel more in control of their own lives, Jackson said.
"When youth feel supported and comfortable, they're more open to speak up if they are missing something, if they haven't been able to visit their siblings, or if there's something affecting their success in school or at home," Jackson said. "We make sure the youth know about and prepare for their hearing."
Jackson said the focus at the transition center in Northwest Lubbock is on the youth, and courtrooms can't offer the same amount of focus for foster youth. "Even though the kids aren't in trouble, that's the feeling they get when they hear the word 'hearing.' Here at the transition center, we sit at a big table, talk conversationally, and have food and candy on the table; whatever makes them comfortable," says Jackson. Hart said the transition center, rather than a courtroom, allows for more creativity and idea-sharing, and also lets everyone involved in a child's life - from foster parents to case workers to education specialists - collaborate.
"When we all sit around the table together we can brainstorm and get creative, which doesn't happen in a courtroom setting. In fact, recently we held a hearing for a young lady with moderate intellectual disabilities who'll require long-term care. We were discussing her needs and someone brought up the idea that she should apply to the Make A Wish Foundation. Someone in the group called, she was accepted, and they are planning a trip to Disneyland!"
BCFS is a non-profit health and human service organization with locations throughout the United States. Hearings at the transition center are held every second Tuesday of the month.