Panel Paper: Calculating Juvenile Dependency Judicial Workload: Accounting for Practice Complexity and Hearing Quality

Thursday, November 8, 2012 : 1:15 PM
Mencken (Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Stephanie Macgill, Jesse Russell, Steve Wood and Alicia Summers, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

Identifying factors that increase timely permanency for children who have been victims of abuse and neglect has been a focus of many researchers. One emergent factor is judicial workload. Early studies on judicial workload found that between 52% and 79% of juvenile dependency judges cited time constraints and overcrowded dockets as a barrier to successfully completing their judicial duties.

Previous workload calculations have not accounted for the complexity of juvenile dependency work and its demands on judicial officers. Juvenile dependency is unique; cases require more social services, collaboration between courts and child welfare agencies, active court oversight, and a broad scope of inquiry from the bench, all while meeting demanding state and federal timeframes. Counting the number of cases per judge does not adequately reflect the complexity of dependency case processing

Moreover, previous calculations have not connected workload estimates with actual practice. Other methods identify the median workload and a jurisdiction’s resources relative to the median, but these methods cannot determine if the median workload is truly appropriate for that jurisdiction. Accordingly, workload calculations should account for differences in hearing quality and consequent impacts on judicial workload. Hearing quality can be measured in terms of the extent of discussion, judicial inquiry and engagement of parties during hearings. Hearings with low levels of discussion, inquiry and engagement are considered minimally sufficient, while hearings with high levels of discussion are considered thorough. Thorough hearings tend to last longer and many jurisdictions may not have the judicial resources necessary to conduct them.

To address these deficiencies, we developed a judicial workload calculation method that incorporates measures of practice complexity and hearing quality. The calculation requires several data points: the number of dependency hearings by type (e.g., shelter, adjudication, and review); the number of judicial work hours in one year; judicial preparation and follow up time ratios; estimates of hearing lengths for each hearing type when discussion is minimally sufficient and thorough; and juvenile dependency full time equivalent (FTE) judicial officer staffing levels.

We piloted the calculation in three jurisdictions in Washington State and then collected data statewide. Analysis revealed that 36% (14 of 39) of Washington’s jurisdictions were under-staffed to conduct even minimally sufficient hearings. Further, only 23% (9 of 39) of jurisdictions were well-staffed to conduct thorough hearings. The estimated statewide need for conducting thorough hearings was 33 FTE judicial officers. The actual statewide FTE was 15; therefore, Washington needs 18 additional judicial officers dedicated to juvenile dependency for courts to conduct thorough hearings in all jurisdictions. 

When courts do not have the resources to conduct thorough hearings, discussion that can move the case forward does not occur. This ultimately leads to more hearings, longer time in care, and delayed permanency for children. While more hearings and longer time in care result in considerable fiscal burdens on the state, the impacts of delayed permanency on children are much more acute. Ensuring that courts have adequate judicial resources is an important step toward ensuring the safety and well being of children.