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Interdisciplinary team helps foster children plan future

Older adolescents in foster care are among society’s most vulnerable populations and have recently become a focus of attention across Pennsylvania. As part of an initiative of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Office of Children & Youth and Families in the Court, a working group convened at the Penn State Law Children’s Advocacy Clinic has advocated for an improved local judicial procedure and providing training for social workers, attorneys, and foster youth. Communities across the state have led working groups to improve the process for youth transitioning to independence from foster care.

“We convened this working group to improve the experience of aging out in Cumberland County,” explained Professor Lucy Johnston-Walsh, director of the Children’s Advocacy Clinic. The working group is comprised of Cumberland County Judge Edward E. Guido ’75, policy clinic student Megan Mazzoni ’11, clinic social worker Gary Shuey, representatives from Cumberland County Children & Youth Services, Dickinson College, and Court Appointed Special Advocates, as well as several adolescents who are currently in foster care.

Changes in Judicial Procedure

Once a dependent child turns 18 in Pennsylvania, he or she must decide whether to stay in foster care or leave;The current hearing structure can encourage foster youth to be passive, explains Professor Lucy Johnston-Walsh, director of the Children's Advocacy Clinic. the decision to leave is irrevocable. Starting in September, Cumberland County judges and hearing officers will be more thorough in the hearing that will terminate a young person dependency status and placement in foster care. Cumberland County judges and hearing officers will now ask a specific series of pointed questions geared toward helping the child plan a future, including:

  • Are you prepared and ready to live on your own? 
  • Did you finish high school? Do you have plans to further your education? 
  • What community or family support do you have in place to assist you? 
  • Do you have a job? 

"The court protocol project was a major focus for me during my time in the clinic," explained Mazzoni, who worked closely with Judge Guido to improve local court procedures. "I became very invested in the project because I know how important it is and the lasting impact it will have for youth in Cumberland County far beyond my one year in the clinic." Mazzoni and her social work partner also worked on curriculum for independent living classes for youth aging out of foster care on topics like job interviewing, health and nutrition. Mazzoni will begin a judical clerkship in New Jersey after graduation. 

“If we can get young people more invested in their own judicial hearings, the idea is that they will become more involved in developing their own life plan,” said Professor Johnston-Walsh.

Moot Court for Foster Youth 

Professor Johnston-Walsh explained that the current hearing structure often results in young people being passive during the hearing that will close a foster case. In June, Cumberland County will host an independent living event that will help prepare foster youth for the implementation of new court protocol and to participate more fully in their final dependency hearing. To that end, the event will feature a moot court event. Cumberland County Juvenile Court Judges Albert H. Masland '82 and Edward E. Guido ’75 will also be participating in the event.

"We are going to stage a moot hearing complete with law students playing the role of attorneys," explained Professor Johnston-Walsh. "By participating in a moot court event, foster youth can learn how to address the court, become more comfortable expressing themselves, and learn more about court protocol." 

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