Chief justice highlights child welfare priorities in first Condition of the Judiciary speech

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen delivers the State of the Judiciary address at the Iowa Capitol on Jan. 13, 2021. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS)

In her first Condition of the Judiciary message, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen introduced herself as “Suzy,” disclosed that she used to be called the “Cookie Judge,” and described her two main post-COVID priorities for Iowa’s court system, both of which involve keeping children with their families.

It was a speech far different in tone and content than lawmakers typically heard from past chief justices. For one thing, Christensen didn’t explicitly ask lawmakers for more staff or operating money, although both are included in the Judicial Branch’s budget request. Only two dollar signs appeared in her 13-page speech text, and neither was attached to a funding request.

Instead, the former juvenile court judge described several pilot projects, one of which was federally funded, aimed at child welfare.

“Child welfare is profoundly important to me. You may not know this, but in my prior life I was the Cookie Judge,” she said. “It was my way of connecting with children who were experiencing severe neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse or mental health issues. These cherubs stole my heart. It became absolutely critical for me to help their parents succeed in juvenile court so that they could be safely reunited.”

Family First

Christensen said her first priority was to elevate implementation of “Family First.” This grew out of a federal program that changed the previous practice of allowing access to federal funding only after an order had been entered to remove a child from his or her home. “With Family First, many Iowa families in crisis will now receive access to services sooner, before a child is removed from the home, rather than after the family is separated,” Christensen said.

Two pilot projects  grew out of Family First:

  • The State Public Defender’s pilot project, which receives state funding, allows parents to have legal representation before a juvenile case is filed, potentially preventing court involvement or removal of the child.
  • “4 Questions, 7 Judges,” a protocol devised by judges, which seeks ways to avoid removal of children if possible or placement with family or friends instead of the foster care system. Christensen said seven judges, using this protocol, placed only 15 children in foster care out of 83 requests for removal. About half of the children were able to stay in their homes.

Family treatment courts:

Christensen said she also wants to elevate the presence of family treatment courts throughout the state. “A modern system of justice cannot be limited to a traditional adversarial model like you see on TV. Some matters, such as child abuse and neglect, are best addressed through efforts targeting the root causes of the family’s crisis,” she said.

Iowa has 12 family treatment courts, which she said has generated $17.7 million in “cost avoidance for the state while allowing the strong majority of the families involved to safely stay together as the parents received treatment.” The treatment courts have also reduced the number of young adults ending up in prison and diverted juveniles away from the criminal justice system, she said.

The Judiciary Branch budget request asks for $190.1 million for fiscal year 2022, a 5% increase over the current year. Gov. Kim Reynolds by law must pass the Judicial Branch’s request directly to the Legislature for consideration. Major increases in the budget request include:

  • About $1 million to hire 17 staff for understaffed rural county court offices
  • About $4.3 million for raises and other support for judicial officers and staff
  • About $3.8 million to fill vacant positions that were frozen in June 2020 to balance the budget.

COVID protocols and pets

Christensen, of Harlan, became chief justice in February, succeeding Justice Mark Cady, who died in November 2019. She was on a job barely a month before the state began to shut down due to COVID-19.

“So exactly what is the “state of the judiciary”? … It’s been turned on its head for almost a year,” Christensen said. “We couldn’t just shut the doors and say, ‘Come back when things are better.’”

Jury trials were postponed between March and September. Trials resumed in the fall with new COVID mitigation protocols but had to shut down again in November when the COVID levels spiked.

“For the past 305 days, we have carefully monitored the pandemic and tried our best to balance the need to keep people safe with our steadfast commitment to conduct business as necessary,” Christensen said. “And I am proud to report today, that the judicial branch did not succumb to COVID-19.”

Christensen described virtual court experiences similar to those many Iowans have encountered when working from home:

“When asked how virtual hearings were going, this is one response I received from a judge. I have to read it to you, because a summary would not suffice:

‘One of the benefits of virtual hearings are the pets: dogs, cats, fish, one potbellied pig, and an “inside” goat appearing during hearings. Dogs are very interested in court and they want to be heard, barking, whining, crying, and they want to be seen sitting on a lap or trying to climb on top of a person. Cats not so much. Cats have no interest in court. In fact, they have a complete disdain for the process. Usually they’re hiding, but occasionally they show their contempt by laying on a keyboard or sitting in front of a webcam.’”