Updated guide issued for child dependency matters

From the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts

HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is issuing an updated resource used by judges and others to help strengthen families and protect children.

The Pennsylvania Dependency Benchbook first distributed in 2010 guides family court judges, hearing masters, attorneys and child welfare professionals through the maze of legal issues and needs of abused and neglected children.

“New and experienced judges across the Commonwealth have embraced the benchbook as a valuable resource, as have lawyers in their court rooms,” said Supreme Court Justice Max Baer, a former administrative judge of family court in Allegheny County. “Unlike other treatises on child welfare which once completed are rarely updated, the Pennsylvania Dependency Benchbook is a living document.”

The updated benchbook incorporates a number of new laws, changes in court procedural rules, and appellate court decisions that impact dependency proceedings. It also includes new sections on subjects such as the termination of court supervision, family finding, father identification and engagement, and incarcerated parents. There also are expanded sections on visitation and support for older youth aging out of the court-supervised system.

Organized for quick and efficient use by means of checklists, suggested questions and best-practice recommendations, the benchbook enhances informed decision-making and child advocacy in a manner not previously done. Other court systems — most notably in Vermont and as far away as the African nation of Tanzania — have used Pennsylvania’s benchbook as a model to enhance their own local practices.

The dependency benchbook is a product of the Supreme Court’s ongoing efforts to implement best practices in reducing delays in placing at-risk children in safe and permanent homes. Annual State Children’s Roundtables, begun in 2007, provide a forum to share ideas and develop strategies for judges, lawyers and child welfare professionals.

The court’s efforts are led by the AOPC’s Office of Children and Families in the Courts (OCFC) in close partnership with the state Department of Public Welfare’s Office of Children, Youth and Families. The OCFC, created in October 2006 by the Supreme Court, is funded with federal grants from the Court Improvement Project run by the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“One of the roundtable’s constant aspirations is to deliver a consistent message of the best practices to engage and resolve the myriad of difficulties facing dependent youth,” noted Justice Baer, the Supreme Court’s liaison to the OCFC. “The benchbook is at the core of this consistent message.”

The updated benchbook was distributed to judges at this year’s Pennsylvania Conference of State Trial Court Judges in Hershey, and is available to the general public on the OCFC website (www.ocfcpacourts.us) as of Aug. 1.

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