Biggest Challenges Facing Juvenile and Family Court Judges

An image from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges Facebook page.
An image from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges Facebook page.
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges' 81st annual conference is slated to take place in Denver beginning on Sunday, July 22. The event will be attended by hundreds of judges and court personnel from across the country who work on the front lines of societal crises representing every size, shape and description, including the opioid epidemic, human trafficking and separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In advance of the gathering (see the details below), NCJFCJ president Tony Capizzi, a judge at Dayton, Ohio's Montgomery County Juvenile Court, outlines some of the most significant issues facing members.

The challenges they bring could hardly be larger, more daunting or of greater importance.

Trauma-Informed Courts

"Judges around the country understand that children, when they come to court, have experienced levels of trauma before they walk into the courtroom," Capizzi says. "And when they're there, do you add to their trauma, or do you relieve it? Children in some courts are handcuffed and shackled on a regular basis, and that's a traumatic event. So we try to explain that when children come before us on a criminal case, the reality is that they're kids: ages ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen.

"We need to understand their trauma better and understand how to deal with them. How do you deal with someone who's eleven and has seen relatives beaten, shot and murdered? These are extreme levels of trauma, and we need to train judges and people throughout the court system how to better interact with these children — how to help them work through their trauma and understand it better."

Opioid Crisis and the Impact on Youth and Families

"My court, in Montgomery County in Ohio, is the epicenter of the opioid crisis. I run the largest drug court in Ohio. And even though this is extremely different than most prior drug issues, it's similar in some ways to the crack epidemic of 25 years ago. People think it's the first time we've experienced this level of challenge, but it's not.

"So many people are using heroin today, but generally speaking, heroin is not a drug that normally will kill someone. But Fentanyl and so many derivatives that are being put in heroin do. Today's heroin is laced with drugs that can kill them immediately.

"Juvenile court is about more than just little criminals. We also manage children who are dependents. The judicial aspects for these kids, who may have been abused or they're dependent on parents who never got married and who have problems of their own. Today, 50 percent of young people are born to parents who never got married, and we have so many people passing away in their twenties and thirties, leaving their children homeless and without parents. There's been a dramatic increase in foster replacement challenges because of all these young kids without parents. That's why we're working with agencies across the country to make sure we have places for these children — especially children where there aren't family members who can take care of them.

"I've been on the bench for fifteen years now, and when I started, I'd never see a kid on heroin or opioids. Back then, it was marijuana and then cocaine and then meth. Nowadays, 25 percent of kids I see between fourteen and seventeen and a half have been caught with heroin or Fentanyl in their system. And it's mind-boggling that kids that age are now taking heroin and Fentanyl.

"When I first was on the bench, I was trying to help kids get off drugs and stay in school and manage their lives. Now, a major part of my job is to keep these young people alive so they can turn eighteen. That's why it's important for us to explain the complexities of drug issues, foster care and how you manage these children and families short-term and long-term, through outpatient programs, inpatient programs. If you send them back to the same house, we know what can happen. So we have to interact with the family and support family assets to make sure that when they go home, it's not counterproductive."