Thursday, June 12, 2014

Consistency at Home Is Key to Student Success

“I didn’t come to school because my uniform was at my mom’s house and I slept at my dad’s two days last week.”
“I was late because I stayed at my cousin’s house and her mom didn’t get us up.” 
“I overslept because I was staying in my aunt’s room and she had the TV on all night.”
“I missed school because I stayed at my dad’s and he lives in West Baltimore.” 
“I was late for school because I stayed with my Grandmother and 
had to take my cousin to school and then didn’t know which bus to take.”

When a student moves from house to house or family member to family member he or she suffers from a lack of structure, the absence of routine, and inconsistent rules and expectations. Because Baltimore City Public School (BCPS) students rely heavily on public transportation, each new move often also means figuring out a new bus schedule. Such was the case with Kiera, a 5th grader who was shuffled between the care of her mother, her grandmother, and her aunts. Sometimes she arrived at her school’s weekly CFCC Truancy Court Program (TCP) meetings from her mother’s house exhausted and reserved, insisting that all she liked to do at home was sleep. At other times she arrived late because she had to take a bus to school from her grandmother’s house, which was fifteen miles outside Baltimore City limits. Yet there were times when she came to school rested and talkative, with her hair neatly combed and clothes clean and pressed. The TCP team learned that those were weeks when she was staying with an aunt who lived far away but who provided consistency, care, and reliable transportation to and from school. Although Kiera liked to stay with her aunt, she did not know from day to day where she would be expected to spend the next night, and her ability to keep up with schoolwork and control her behavior suffered as a result.

In December, Kiera’s attendance improved dramatically. Between December and March, Kiera was present and on time every day. Her grades improved, as did her behavior. The TCP team learned that Kiera had been staying with her aunt.  For the first time since August, she had been in one place for almost four months, and her school record reflected that consistency.  Kiera’s aunt, however, was not her legal guardian, and Kiera could be removed from her care by either of her parents at any moment.  The aunt asked the TCP team if anything could be done to make her caregiving arrangement permanent and enforceable. 

What can be done?

In cases like Kiera’s, where students are being moved from the custody of one caregiver to another, it is critical for caregivers to understand the importance of consistency and stability. The TCP team counsels each family member to value the student’s education and to make a commitment to help him or her get to school on time, regardless of where the student stays. Mediation services can bring together family and community members to ensure that the students’ attendance remains consistent. The inconsistency of many custodial arrangements often stems from the fact that they are informal. Thus, establishing legal guardianship for one party can provide consistency and permanency by specifying who has the authority to make decisions on behalf of the child. Similarly, a legal determination of physical custody can provide stability by establishing a clear schedule for the student. These legal determinations also help by empowering caregivers with the right to make enforceable decisions regarding the student, even if others disagree.  In some extreme and rare cases in which one of the caregivers is neglectful or abusive, filing a report with Child Protective Services may be necessary to ensure that a child is removed from or kept out of a dangerous situation.

Whether the solution takes the form of a legally enforceable document or simply a verbal consensus among caregivers, consistency in a student’s home life increases his or her potential for academic and social success.  With the help of the TCP team, Kiera’s family is trying to find a lasting solution that will work for them and, most importantly, for Kiera.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What is Therapeutic Jurisprudence (TJ)?

I founded the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) in August, 2000, with Therapeutic Jurisprudence (TJ) as one of its two underlying theoretical constructs. Indeed, TJ informs and frames all of CFCC’s work. Many academics have heard of TJ, and the legal and judicial communities are becoming increasingly familiar with its meaning and implications for the practice of law. Nonetheless, there are some misconceptions surrounding TJ and its application. For example, one popular misconception is that TJ calls for judges and lawyers to be experts in psychology or social work.

Professor David Wexler, one of the two co-founders of TJ, and I recently published an article in the Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice that helps to explain the evolution of TJ, its meaning, and its impact on the law across a wide range of practice areas.

Therapeutic jurisprudence is a field of inquiry that “focuses on the law's impact on an individual's emotional and psychological well-being.” Professor Wexler and I explain:
TJ looks at the law as a social force that can produce therapeutic (helpful) or antitherapeutic (harmful) consequences. These consequences flow from substantive law, legal rules, and legal procedures (the "legal landscape") and from the behavior (the "practices and techniques") of legal actors, including lawyers, judges, court personnel, and others working within a legal context… Therapeutic jurisprudence aims to produce tangible, positive change: to promote the well-being of all legal actors and to improve the justice system so that it is more relevant and helpful for participants and their communities.” 
As we point out, TJ is a lens or framework through which to examine the legal and judicial systems. TJ asks us to think about the law in a very different way—to view the law as a helping profession rather than as an adversarial process in which there are always winners and losers. TJ urges judges and lawyers, for example, to consider the impact of their decisions and actions on the well-being of the parties who come before them. It asks all legal actors to think beyond the immediate facts of a case and to take into account the potential consequences, both intended and unintended, of their actions and decisions.

Addressing issues of marriage, divorce, custody, child support, adoption, property, and protection, among other issues, family law has a profound impact on people’s lives and well-being. Family law and the family justice system also include the child welfare system, or child abuse and neglect cases, and the juvenile justice system, or juvenile delinquency cases, both of which regularly define and/or change the trajectory of a child’s life.

Although TJ does not demand that judges and lawyers become social workers or psychologists, it does call for an interdisciplinary approach to judicial and legal decision-making. The social sciences offer important and helpful perspectives.

I believe that lawyers and judges in the family justice system should be trained to identify and address the legal and non-legal reasons underlying a family's problems. They also should be taught to examine the connections and interactions among family members, as well as the relationship of the family to community institutions. Judges and lawyers who use a holistic approach to strengthen these connections and who can find creative solutions to a family’s legal and non-legal issues are the true problem-solvers that these families and children need and deserve.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Therapeutic Side of Law

One of my apprehensions in committing to law school was the adversarial process and the impact on families and children in the judicial process.  The Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) Student Fellows Program has been instrumental in reassuring me that my pursuit of a legal career was the right decision.  Throughout this semester, my colleagues and I have learned a different side of the law grounded in Therapeutic Jurisprudence (TJ) and the Ecology of Human Development.  TJ is a holistic approach that aims to address the legal and non-legal issues of clients while incorporating interdisciplinary methods to address the root issue(s) and providing the necessary resources to empower clients to regain ownership of their lives and problems.  The Ecology of Human Development looks at each litigant’s environment individually to customize a solution to fit their individual needs.  

These brand new concepts and programs were introduced to us through classroom discussions, guest speakers, and (my personal favorite) field trips to see these concepts in action!  From guest speakers and visits to the Unified Family Court to seminar topics dealing with Preventive Law, Court Reform in Family Law, Collaborative Law, the Juvenile Justice System, and Problem Solving Courts, the CFCC Student Fellows have been exposed to a hidden side of law that I suspect is concealed from even most practicing attorneys. 

This year also marks the fifteenth anniversary of the creation of Maryland’s Family Divisions.  While this major milestone deserves a celebration (stay tuned for a date), it is also a reason to pause, reflect, and assess the implementation of the mission and goals of the Family Division.  My CFCC project this semester was to assist in planning the fifteen year celebration, including analyzing survey results from Circuit Court Judges and Masters to learn about their attitudes and court practices with respect to addressing the needs of families and children in the family court.  The mission of the Family Division is to provide comprehensive services early on in the litigation process to improve the lives of families and children who appear before the court.  Preliminary survey results indicate that while judicial officers find it important to have and integrate interdisciplinary solutions, the implementation is lacking.  To see the concepts we’ve learned all semester being recognized and requested by the judiciary is encouraging.    

As we wrapped up this semester last Wednesday, I realized how influential this class has been to me.  This class has taught me to practice law more holistically, which not only will benefit clients but additionally will reassure me that I can make a substantial impact in the lives of my future clients.  I truly believe the experience and concepts of the CFCC Student Fellows Program should be integrated throughout the law school curriculum so that all future lawyers are trained to practice law more holistically.  Until then, I encourage my fellow students at UB Law to take advantage of this fantastic opportunity and enroll in the CFCC Student Fellows Program I to learn about the therapeutic side of law.    

Friday, November 15, 2013

Field Trip to the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center

On November 6, 2013, the Center for Families, Children and the Courts Student Fellows and professors visited the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center located at 300 North Gay Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. We were fortunate enough to receive a tour of the facility by Rudy Adams, the Center’s managing director. We first met with Mr. Adams in a conference room to learn a little about the Center itself and how the Center functions.

Mr. Adams explained that this Center is only 1 of 3 of its kind in the nation. People from all across the world have come to visit this Center to see how things are done. This Center is unique in part because it is a multi-agency facility with a combined inter-government workforce housing the following departments: Department of Human Resources (including Baltimore City’s Department of Social Services), Office of the Public Defender, Baltimore City State’s Attorneys’ Office, Community Family Resource Center, Baltimore City Circuit Court (Juvenile Division), Baltimore City Clerk of the Court Office (Division of Juvenile Clauses), Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office, and Baltimore City Police Department. In addition to the aforementioned departments, there is also a detention center within the facility that provides residential housing for children in custody awaiting adjudication and disposition of delinquency cases.

I was amazed by this Center. I did not know it even existed prior to participating in the CFCC Student Fellows Program this semester. This Center is a great model for how Juvenile Justice should be handled. It was a one stop shop which seemed to make sense for an efficient handling of a case from beginning to end. Housing the multiple departments involved in these sorts of cases, all in one facility, is brilliant. Instead of having to waste time traveling or hearing back from another agency, you are only footsteps away.

Additionally, the tone of this facility was family friendly and fostered a welcoming atmosphere. There was artwork made by children in the community displayed in the hallways. There seemed to be several people within the agencies we passed on our tour who were dedicated to the Center’s mission and wanted to provide people in need with the resources available to assist them. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to tour this Center and hope to see replicates appear in other jurisdictions in the near future!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

CFCC Reflections

I became a Student Fellow with the University of Baltimore School of Law Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children, and the Courts (“CFCC”) in the middle of August. All the Student Fellows have been participating steadily and importantly in class discussions and projects. A major focus has been to reform the family justice system. For example, different approaches such as the Ecology of Human Development and Therapeutic Jurisprudence are fused together to create a more sustainable family justice system. Working with CFCC, I learned that all families and children ought to have an effective and efficient court system.

I have taken what I have learned and continue to learn and use the skills within CFCC’s Truancy Court Program (TCP), in which I participate. I started my project with the TCP in the middle of September and have come a long way. I have had the privilege to work alongside the Honorable Yvette Bryant, Baltimore City Circuit Court Family Division, Judge-in-Charge. We pride ourselves in addressing the root causes of truant behavior and link families to needed social services or other community-based supports. Seeing the transformation of the students from week one to now week eight has been inspirational. For many of the students participating in the TCP, it is the first time someone has dedicated so much time and effort to help them succeed. Every week is a new challenge for the TCP team and for the students. We actually can see that the students are using the help and support with which they are provided. The students have been opening up more and are happy to start talking to the TCP team when they are doing well and are having a great week. Even when students have had a bad week or have missed unexcused days of school, they are starting to tell us right away and are offering solutions to their own problems so that they do not repeat the behavior. It is truly remarkable how the TCP is affecting the lives of many in a positive way. When the TCP team has to tell a student that we are disappointed in him/her, it leaves a long lasting impression. The student knows that the people across the table truly care and want to help.

There was one particular incident in which a student approached the TCP table with a parent. The parent clearly was not aware of the purpose of the TCP. As soon as the parent sat down, she had an attitude and would talk over the team members to make sure she was heard. The TCP team members began to explain one-by-one the goals we had for the student, why we were even involved in the school, and the resources we could offer. The main point we wanted to emphasize was that we were there to help. The parent began to settle down and actually listen to what the team members had to say. She grew very fond of the program and what it had to offer. The look on the parent’s face showed me that what we were doing was something special. It was as if she was asking, “Why are you taking time to help us?” She left the table with a completely different attitude and understanding. Since her first visit with us, she has attended the remainder of the TCP sessions.

Being a CFCC Student Fellow truthfully has been an amazing experience. I look forward to the discussions and the projects we explore. There have been many hands on experiences with CFCC field trips, which show the different areas of the family justice system. Some visits have included a tour of Baltimore City’s Family Division, observing Baltimore City Drug Treatment Court, and visiting Baltimore City’s Juvenile Justice Center. Each visit was very educational and an experience that I will not forget. I am proud to be a CFCC Student Fellow and look forward to continuing my Fellowship with University of Baltimore’s Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children, and the Courts.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The "A "Team: An Inside Look At The Baltimore City Drug Treatment Court

On October 23, 2013 the CFCC Student Fellows visited the Baltimore City Drug Treatment Court. As we entered the court room, the first thing I noticed was a chalkboard with “The A Team” written on it.  I soon found out what that meant. When a participant remained drug-free and complied with treatment, his or her name would be written on the chalkboard as a member of “The A Team,” at which point everyone in the courtroom would give a round of applause. I was quite surprised because I had never seen something like this before.

When the clerk called the case, the Drug Court participant came to the “defendant’s” table in front of the Judge’s bench. There was one other person sitting next to the participant, and two people sitting at the “plaintiff’s” table.

I noticed the informal nature of the interaction between the Drug Court team members. The Judge was extremely friendly, even cheerful, and her positive attitude resulted in a calm atmosphere that is not usually felt in a court room. One member of the Drug Court team gave an update on how the participant had done since his/her last court appearance.  Depending on how long the participant remained drug free and complied with drug treatment, he/she would progress through several levels of the Drug Court Program, and eventually graduate.  

As I looked around the courtroom, I saw that most of the participants were middle-aged  African American men. I took note of the disparity in ethnicity and gender, which could be linked to Baltimore’s demographics.  As I watched the court administrator write the names of participants on the chalkboard, I wondered what the court did about those who did not make it on “The A Team.” We found out that those individuals still received encouragement and support.  For example, there were a couple of participants towards the end of the docket who had a negative progress report. I thought the Judge’s demeanor would change from cheerfulness to anger, but, instead, I was pleasantly surprised to see her disappointment and then encouragement.

The judge reprimanded the participant who had been caught drinking, and then handed down a sanction that did not include jail time. Instead, she ordered this individual to sit in Drug Court for two days. I later asked the judge why she gave that sanction and she explained how boring it was for someone to observe the court for an entire day.  However, this sanction served a second purpose: watching Drug Court participants succeed was a demonstration of each individual’s power to change himself or herself.  Further, the reprimanded participant had to listen to the many excuses made by people who relapse into drug and/or alcohol abuse and saw for himself or herself how ridiculous they sounded. 

When a participant did not get a good progress report, there was no applause.  However, there did not seem to be a negative vibe in the courtroom, either.  Instead, the judge would focus on the participant’s goals, motivate and encourage them to do better, and remind them that they were there to get help and the court was there to help them.

At the end of our visit, I asked who was on the Drug Court Program team.  I learned that they were the Judge, the public defender, the state’s attorney, the agent, the case manager, the clerk, the program director, the bailiffs, and the medical expert. I was surprise to see how everyone worked as a team, when I first walked into the courtroom.  In fact, I could not identify each person by his or her questions or demeanor.  I left with a good understanding of problem- solving courts and their purpose of rehabilitation instead of punishment.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Link between Truancy and the Local Bus System

With a weekly local bus ridership of 241,071, the MTA public bus system plays an oversized role in the daily lives of many Baltimore citizens1. It’s no exaggeration to say that our students’ success is dependent on the smooth running of the MTA local bus system. Without a private bus system to provide transportation to school, the students in the CFCC Truancy Court Program are at the mercy of their local bus. Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a destructive issue if these same students didn’t also face other major barriers in their lives, all of which operate to prevent them from achieving consistent school success.

At our first orientation meeting at National Academy Foundation, one student expressed her frustration with the bus system. She identified the bus as being a major hurdle in getting to school on time, rattling off reasons: sometimes the bus is so full that it drives past her, it doesn’t get there on time, she has to walk six blocks each way to catch the only bus that brings her to NAF. These are not novel concerns, and she is hardly the first student to express irritation about the bus system when getting to and from school. In fact, the difficulties with the buses are a recurring theme at the TCP table and have been for many years.

Not heeding the wisdom of this ninth grader, I naively thought that my experience with the local bus would be different. The week following orientation I committed to take public transportation to the Truancy Court Program at NAF on Tuesdays from the Midtown area near University of Baltimore.

I was, of course, nervous about relying on the public bus system, especially given my lack of experience with public transportation. I didn’t have an easy time figuring out the schedule from the MTA website, so I mostly relied on Google directions and the kindness of strangers to help me find my way. There was, however, some optimism in me that I could make it work.

Imagine my excitement when, a few days after I committed to start taking public transportation, I successfully arrived at an internship placement using the #21 bus. Of course, that was a fail-proof attempt, as it didn’t much matter what time I showed up. Nonetheless, It was a huge relief to discover on that trip that the #21 bus passed NAF on its route. I had found a direct trip to NAF without having to change bus lines. How serendipitous, I thought! Plus, the entire experience was fairly pleasant and enjoyable. The day before I was scheduled to return to NAF for the Truancy Court Program, I tried the route again on my way to the internship placement. I picked up the #21 bus at the corner of Biddle and Calvert at 8:36am, boarding along with another passenger, who was standing with me.

The Tuesday morning when I was scheduled to be at NAF by 8:45am, I was at the same bus stop at the same time (8:25am) as I had been the day before. On this day, however, not only did the #21 bus not show up at the same time, it didn’t even stop. It drove right past me, even as I signaled to the driver. All I could think was that this is how our student felt when she, too, had been left at the bus stop while trying to get to school.

At this point, I knew I would be late getting to NAF, but I counted on the fact that another bus would come in 20-30 minutes. I felt confident that because it was peak hours, I would wait no more than 30 minutes for the next #21 to arrive. At 9:15am, there was no bus in sight. Even another 15 minutes of waiting didn’t help; after a total of forty-five minutes, I gave up. It was 9:30am and I knew that whenever the bus did come, I would not get to NAF in time to participate in the TCP.

Besides the embarrassment of this experience, I felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness: I relied so brazenly on the public transportation system. Just as our students do every single day. I was confident that based on the previous day’s experience, I would be fine to expect a similar result the very next day. Sadly, the public transportation system in Baltimore is not a reliable mode of transportation, especially when there is an expectation of arriving at a specified time. How can our students possibly be expected to arrive to school every day on time when their means of transportation is inconsistent and unreliable? What can we tell them when they have no other means of getting to school?

To make the task of getting to and from school such a difficult challenge is to send the wrong message to our Baltimore City students. If public transportation isn’t a reliable, predictable means for them to get to elementary/middle/high school, then it won’t be a reliable means when they need it for post-secondary school, training courses, or employment opportunities. Our message through the work of the Truancy Court Program is that education is important, that it will lead to greater opportunities in life. We strive to enforce this message through our work, yet the issues with the public transportation system implicitly reinforce those insurmountable challenges that are part of the student’s macrosystem environment. Transportation is an unnecessary barrier to their success; making it better for all of Baltimore city’s citizens will mean a better future for our students, schools, and the city itself.

1 “MTA Facts and Figures.” Maryland Transit Administration. Retrieved from Last visited October 23, 2013.