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Officials with the Iowa judicial system are renewing their focus on youth — with a goal to keep more Iowa children in their own homes and keep them out of the justice system.
In her first Condition of the Judiciary address last year, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen listed juvenile justice has her top priority. In her second annual address to the Iowa Legislature on Wednesday, Christensen delivered an update showing promising results.
The state’s innovative “four questions” project was piloted by a small group of judges, who asked four basic questions of child welfare workers requesting children be removed from their homes:
- What can we do to remove the danger instead of the child?
- Can someone the child or family knows move into the home to remove the danger?
- Can the caregiver and the child go live with a relative?
- Could the child move temporarily to live with a relative?
Early evidence from courtrooms where the questions have been used show child removals were reduced by nearly half. And when children are separated from parents, courts are reportedly finding more ways to place them with relatives or “fictive kin,” meaning people who are not related but have a close connection to the family.
A large body of research shows children and parents have better outcomes when they are able to stay together. Iowans should be encouraged by Christensen’s report that the “four questions” model is expanding statewide and could be a model for other states to follow.
Christensen noted in her speech that many young Iowans the courts deal with are in the system on two fronts — both as child welfare and juvenile delinquency cases. She’s calling on the courts to address both sides of that equation.
An Iowa Juvenile Justice Task Force is underway now, the first comprehensive view of the juvenile system in nearly 30 years, Christensen said. One challenge is that Iowa has a decentralized system between the judicial branch and the human services, human rights and public health departments.
It sounds like it’s a system ripe for reform and streamlining. We hope other policymakers take notice of the types of creative solutions Iowa courts are putting forth.
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