The first hearing in a dependency proceeding, where I had the opportunity to meet and talk with a parent that had a child removed from their care, is known as a “preliminary protective hearing.” After addressing all the legal requirements in this hearing, I would conclude by talking with the parent directly. In talking with a parent, I would do my best to allay the biggest fear they had at that moment: never seeing their child again. I would assure the parent that everyone in the courtroom– the attorneys, the DCS case worker, and even myself, had one goal for the case: that the parent be reunited with their child. After informing the parent of this fact, I then discussed with them what they needed to do, and what I needed to see, in order to make this a reality.
One of the unfortunate realities of the child welfare system is that once a child is removed from a parent, it may take several months before a judge is in the position to consider whether to reunify the child with their family. This is a heartbreaking reality, because it often takes a parent several months, if not longer, for them to successfully engage in reunification services before it is safe and appropriate for a child to be reunited with their parent.
However, when a parent does the hard work and engages in the services that result in making them a better person and parent, that transformation is an absolute joy to watch. The change from the individual I encountered at the preliminary protective hearing to the person who has overcome the obstacles that caused the removal of their child, and is now on the cusp of getting their child back is nothing short of miraculous. As a judge, I began to look forward to having these review hearings. I couldn’t wait to read about the latest progress these parents had made, and how the once-broken relationship between parent and child was being repaired. And when I was able to have these parents in my courtroom and see the transformation, my heart would swell, and I would tell the parent how proud I was of them and their tremendous accomplishment.
The high point of this experience occurred when all the interested parties in the case would recommend that the dependency petition be dismissed, and the child returned to their parent. During this hearing, I would once again speak directly to the parent, and I would often refer to that initial hearing where I attempted to calm their fears about never seeing their child again, and how I informed them about what they needed to do in order to get their child back. I would then recount the hard work they had taken on and accomplished while their child was not in their care. I would remind the parent they had overcome these obstacles, that they had put in the hard work to become a better person and parent, and that everyone in the courtroom, including me, was incredibly proud of their life-changing accomplishment. And when, at the end of the hearing, I was able to state that the dependency matter was dismissed and ordered that the child be returned to their parent, there was never a dry eye in the courtroom – my eyes included.
My four years as a juvenile court judge was an incredible experience. I took the bench each day with the mindset that I was going to do my best to help the kids and parents that appeared before me. Unfortunately, the “successes” weren’t as many as I would have liked, however, when I was able to be a part of seeing a family reunified, the joy was simply indescribable.
Judge James Beene
Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One