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When Can I Go Home? The Impact of Continuances on Rates and Timing of Reunification in Vermont’s Child Abuse and Neglect Dockets
AdvisorMarsh, Shawn C
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This thesis explores whether continuances of juvenile court hearings unreasonably extend the time that children remain in substitute care before returning home, being adopted or achieving permanency otherwise. When children are removed from their home because they cannot safely remain there, the court process often dictates if, and when they will be reunified with their families or find new, permanent homes. Delays in court proceedings can, therefore, delay this resolution. Myriad causes of delays include overloaded dockets, lack of community resources, overburdened family services workers, attorney scheduling conflicts, inability to locate or even identify parents and many others. Some of these factors are beyond the control of the court system. Others are not. In many cases, judges are called upon to exercise discretion in either granting or denying a request for a continuance. What may seem like a trivial decision, particularly considering the many other decisions being made every day, may very well have a profound impact on the life of a child. Some continuances are necessary; others are not. It must be determined whether the delay is acceptable because of a better outcome such as greater assurances that the child will remain safely in the home. Each year between 2011 and 2015, there were, on average, approximately 720 children removed from their parents or guardians’ custody in Vermont. I randomly selected 100 cases for each of the five years weighted by county. Data collected from these cases include the age of the child at the time of removal, the number of continuances granted, the length of each continuance , the reasons for the continuances, the types of hearings continued, the disposition of the case and the length of time from removal to permanency. Using both quantitative and content analyses, patterns were sought in comparing time in substitute care and factoring in the number of continuances being mindful that the age of the child may have a confounding impact on trends and being mindful of the reason for the continuance and the type of hearing continued. It was expected that a correlation would be found between the number of continuances and the length of time that a child remains in substitute care. Indeed, such a correlation does exist although no patterns emerged to suggest that certain hearing types or reasons for continuances resulted in more time in substitute care than others.The findings of the study indicate that there is room for improvement in avoiding delays in Vermont’s juvenile court process. Even where all parties jointly request a continuance, judges must be vigilant in guarding against avoidable delays as often a continuance believed to be necessary to advance a more swift reunification (such as parties working toward a settlement which would obviate the need for a contentious hearing) simply postpones the hearing rather than eliminate it. Where there were no continuances, children in the study remained out of the home an average of 273.5 days. Where there was one continuance, the average was 510 days. Awareness of these statistics by attorneys, family services workers, guardians ad litem, court staff and, most especially, judges is critical to ensuring timely permanency for all children. This thesis is intended to bring to the attention of the child-welfare and court systems that delays in court proceedings correlate to significant additional time in substitute care.