Pop Quiz: What do American Dependency Courts and Resource Poor Countries Have in Common?

I recently read and reviewed Gary Haugen and Victor Boutrous’ new, groundbreaking book, The Locust Effect. In it, Haugen and Boutros spend a considerable amount of time detailing the corruption, abuse, and dysfunction rampant in the justice systems and law enforcement agencies of developing worlds. Until these systems are fixed, they argue, remedial measures to eradicate poverty will not be able to take full effect.

Although Haugen and Boutros say little about corresponding U.S. systems, as I read their descriptions of outrageous police, judicial, and community actions that disallow the poor and disenfranchised from receiving justice, I couldn’t help but compare those descriptions to what occurs here in the United States.

I won’t pretend that our justice system and law enforcement agencies are anything near what is described in The Locust Effect. Our systems are vastly less corrupt, less abusive, and less dysfunctional. Nonetheless, I found far too many similarities between the impoverished courts of developing worlds and the American court system established to obtain justice for the least powerful among us: abused and neglected children.

In a section entitled, “Justice Moves at a Glacial Pace,” Haugen and Boutros detail the most harmful courtroom conditions they have witnessed, and greatly emphasize the outrage Americans would feel if such things took place in American courtrooms. Making the list of outrage-worthy actions:

  • a shortage of judges and decades of underinvestment in the judicial system
  • trials conducted over months and years instead of consecutive days
  • that lawyers, witnesses, and even the judge can, with impunity, simply fail to show up
  • pre-trials and trials being frequently cancelled and rescheduled
  • child sex victims having to testify two or more times
  • frequent changes in counsel.

Having spent over a decade working within the foster care system, I have witnessed my fair share of courtroom action on behalf of abused and neglected children. Unfortunately, the conditions detailed above are precisely what occur most days in the American courtrooms whose mission it is to protect children.

Let’s compare:

Haugen and Boutros are clear in their belief that Americans would revolt if trials were not heard on consecutive days and settled within short periods of time. Yet, that is precisely what foster children—who wait daily to determine where they will live and who they will call “mom”—experience. Because of backlog, underfunding, and overcrowded dockets, trials can take months or even a year. Often times this occurs due to the next absurdity noted by Haugen and Boutros, which is also commonplace in American dependency courts: key players fail to show. And instead of being punished for this, the trial is cancelled and rescheduled, sometimes being put off for a month or more due to scheduling conflicts, vacations, or court holidays.

It is for similar reasons that child witnesses are often forced to testify over the course of several non-consecutive days. Even when the child’s testimony is given within the judge’s chambers, outside of earshot of the accused, the emotional impact is great.

Lastly, given the overwhelmed and underpaid attorneys and social workers who are appointed to represent and advocate for children, counsel and social workers frequently change. This impacts not only the attorney/client, social worker/client relationship, it impacts the judicial process as new social workers and attorneys must be brought up to speed about prior proceedings.

In their call for complete and total reform of judicial systems in most developing worlds, Haugen and Boutros write that these problems are “devastating little detail[s] of systemic dysfunction that people outside the developing world might never imagine.”

Indeed.

And those outside the dependency system would never imagine them, either. But these problems do exist, and they do the same harm here that they do in resource poor countries: delay justice, increase pain for victims, and create distrust of a system put into place to protect those in need

We are lucky. We have well-educated professionals to protect children. We have kind and caring judges. We have loving social workers and passionate attorneys. Importantly, we also have laws to protect children from the “devastating details of dysfunction.” But as Haugen and Boutros write, laws on the books do little good if they are not applied in the day-to-day workings of police stations or courtrooms.

Haugen and Boutros paint a striking picture when they rightly compare courtrooms in the developing world to Alice in Wonderland. When the Queen puts Alice on trial for stealing, Alice takes comfort in her familiarity with the court environment. She can identify the jury box, the jurors, and the judge—she is perhaps not in her element, but she is at least knowledgeable of what (she anticipates) will occur. Yet when court enters session, Alice witnesses “absurdities, gibberish, and malapropisms” far removed from what she thought she knew.

Similarly, we—as Americans or lawyers or advocates—think we know what happens within our courtrooms. We can identify the key players, we sometimes even know applicable law. But upon entering courtrooms whose job it is to protect children, we become “lost in the swirl of confusion, non secquitur, and dysfunction,” just as Alice was.

I do not purport to know the answer to this problem. We have decent laws and wonderful attorneys, judges, and social workers. We have non-profits such as the National Center for Youth Law whose mission it is to change the policies that cause such problems (and others) to occur. The people who are aware of the existing dysfunction are trying to make things right. Perhaps if we bring this dysfunction to light for others—not just those intimately involved with the foster care system—change agents will discover this “new” place of need and act accordingly.

We are all called to different works and moved by different needs. We cannot, however, realize our callings and passion without knowing what needs exist. So here you have it. Just as Haugen and Boutros say justice systems in the developing world need our attention and efforts, so too does the U.S. dependency system. If you didn’t know this before, you know it now. I would ask that you search your heart and conscience to determine whether this is something you are passionate about and willing to take action to address.

If so, I suggest checking out wonderful organizations like Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). I suggest paying far too much for law school so you can take an underpaid job helping children. I suggest pursuing an MSW so you can spend 12-hour days driving between the foster homes of various children just to make sure they know they are loved. I suggest saying a prayer for a judge or commissioner whose docket is (over) crowded with heartbreaking stories of abuse and neglect, and who sometimes tears up during testimony.

If this isn’t your area of passion, I get that. But if you feel a little niggle in your heart as you read about local courtrooms comparable to what two American authors call a “dysfunctional outrage,” then please, do something. Leave a comment here if you have ways others can get involved, or if you want to know more about ways you can help.

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