In 1993, Congress created the Court Improvement Program (CIP), a grant program to assist state courts in improving the handling of child abuse and neglect cases (also known as dependency cases). Unlike other court case types, there are federal mandates governing dependency cases. Congress recognized the effects of these mandates by the passage of the CIP legislation. This initial grant program, within the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program, expanded in 2005 when Congress authorized additional training and data grants for state courts. These three grants, awarded to the highest court in each state, are the only federal funds that state courts receive for the purpose of improving state court oversight of dependency cases.

Florida, like state court systems around the country, has leveraged the CIP funds to effectuate better outcomes for children and families. Our efforts are family centered and our goal continues to be achieving timely permanency for children. Florida’s CIP team is staffed by attorneys, court analysts, systems programmers, and support staff. The activities of the team are aimed at improving the safety, permanency, and well-being of children and improving outcomes for families involved in the dependency court process. The team:

  1. Provides training and technical assistance to dependency judges, magistrates, and court staff. This includes the Dependency Benchbook, a user-friendly reference guide that includes state and national laws, rules of court, and family-centered bench practices (such as using science-informed visitation protocols, involving children in court, ensuring concurrent planning, addressing paternity, addressing child support, and recognizing the need for trauma-informed treatment). The team, along with a group of judges and court partners, produced the dependency virtual court. Modeled after the domestic violence virtual court, this program takes the user to an interactive courtroom to judge a shelter hearing. The user watches testimony and then must rule on a variety of issues such as paternity, child support, and psychotropic medication. A variety of resources are also available at the user’s fingertips such as the newly updated dependency benchbook, Florida statutes, and Florida rules of juvenile procedure. This program is a resource for duty judges as well.
  1. Develops and maintains the Florida Dependency Court Information System, a web-based case management system that assists judges, magistrates, and court staff with meeting federal and state mandates for dependency cases. This automated system presents data in an easy-to-read fashion, organizes workload, and provides individual case information as well as aggregate caseload, county, circuit, and statewide information. Court improvement staff are currently importing data from other systems, and look forward to launching the system in the coming months.
  1. Promotes collaboration between the courts and the Department of Children and Families. Also promotes collaboration among other child welfare system partners. Examples of this include the annual statewide dependency summit, the statewide Dependency Court Improvement Panel, and data sharing.
  1. Produces resources for the public to aid in the understanding of the dependency court process. (See links above.)

Statewide Model Courts Project

Using the new Dependency Benchbook as a foundation, model court judges hearing cases involving child abuse and neglect are employing cutting edge court practices and are providing off-the-bench judicial leadership to build strong, community partnerships. The state’s court improvement program in the Florida Office of the State Courts Administrator supports the project by facilitating judicial networking and educational opportunities, providing liaisons to work directly with individual jurisdictions, and linking judges to national technical assistance resources.

Some recent model court activities include:

  • A multidisciplinary team from the 8th circuit shared their concurrent case planning innovations with judges, court staff, and court partners in the 2nd circuit.
  • A multidisciplinary team from the 6th circuit visited the 5th circuit to describe how they handle multiple cases involving one family.
  • Consultants with the National Center of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the American Bar Association conducted a two-day training event for the judges, court staff, and court partners in the 20th circuit.
  • A judge in the 19th circuit helped coordinate a local, two-day dependency summit including a presentation on trauma informed care and a panel discussion by foster parents and foster youth.