By ROBIN J. DAVIS
CHARLESTON -- United by a resolve to protect children from abuse and neglect, leaders from 41 states attended "A Summit on Children: It's Their Future – Ours Too!" in New York City in March 2007.
I led the team from West Virginia, which included the Honorable Gary Johnson, Chief Judge of the 28th Judicial Circuit, Chairperson of the Court Improvement Program Oversight Board, president of the West Virginia Judicial Association and recipient of the Angels in Adoption award from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.
Also attending were Sue Hage, Program Manager for Regulatory Management of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, who has more than 30 years of institutional knowledge, and Nikki Tennis, Counsel for Children and Families at the Administrative Office of the Courts.
The summit was a sequel to the 2005 National Leadership Summit on the Protection of Children sponsored by the Conference of Chief Justices, the Conference of State Court Administrators, the National Center for State Courts, and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
Recognizing that collaboration between the three branches of government at all levels is essential to the protection of children, speakers shared their successes and encouraged states to borrow ideas and enlarge the current collaboration of courts and child protection agencies to include educators, substance abuse counselors, mental health professionals and legislators.
Keynote speaker Geoffrey Canada, author of Fist Stick Knife Gun and executive director of Harlem Children's Zone, said that to save children states must intervene early, treat parents like partners and make funding a priority for children's programs and education.
Of all of the distinguished speakers, I was particularly moved by the panel of young adults who shared their experiences growing up in foster, or out-of-home-placement, care. They spoke of being placed with multiple families or in group facilities until they "aged out" of the system.
"I just wanted was to belong to a family," one young man said. They put faces on a national crisis.
A UNICEF report released in February ranked the United States last in health and safety of children out of 21 wealthy nations surveyed. Only the United Kingdom ranked worse overall in the six categories: material well-being, health and safety, education, peer and family relationships, behavior and risks, and young people's own subjective sense of well-being.
No state, including West Virginia, fared well in the last Child and Family Services Reviews completed by the Children's Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families in March 2004. West Virginia's next review takes place in the fall of 2008.
While the Court and WVDHHR are continuing to strengthen our collaboration through the Court Improvement Program, the mission to ensure that children have the safety, permanency and well-being they deserve is far from completed. This is one reason I am calling 2007 "The Year of the Child, Too."
The Court is planning a number of activities this year through its three Court Improvement Program grants, including the commission of a statewide study of multi-disciplinary treatment teams; annual cross-disciplinary training to take place this summer in Morgantown, Elkins, and Clay; inclusion of more performance measurements in the Child Abuse and Neglect Database; development of uniform child and family case plans; support of the annual CASA (Court-appointed Special Advocate) training; continued training on JANIS (Juvenile Abuse and Neglect Information System) and JUDI (Juvenile Delinquency Information System) software for completion of orders in child abuse and neglect and juvenile justice cases, respectively; and design and development of a curriculum for judicial leadership roundtables to take place in 2009.
Finally, the Court will apply lessons learned from the Summit on Children so that every year comes closer to being the year for every child.
Davis is Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.