By Jamie Bernstein
Executive Director, and
Renée Castillo-De La Cruz
Staff Attorney, both at the Supreme Court of Texas Children’s Commission in Austin
No child enters or leaves foster care without a court order. Accordingly, the Supreme Court of Texas established the Children’s Commission in 2007 to serve as the critical connection between the child protection and legal systems. For the approximately 30,000 children who are in the care of the state at any point in time, a judge will:
• determine where the child will live, with whom, and for how long;
• decide whether the child will be allowed to see siblings and other family members, how often, and under what circumstances;
• approve plans to provide services to the family;
• monitor progress to determine whether the family can safely stay together or reunify; and
• perhaps decide whether a child’s legal relationship with his or her parents will be terminated.
Clearly, courts have a profound impact on children and families in our state, and the stakes are exceedingly high. The Children’s Commission’s purpose is to strengthen courts for children, youth, and families and thereby improve the safety, permanency, and well-being of children. The Children’s Commission fulfills this mission by:
• administering the federal Court Improvement Program in Texas;
• training and educating judges, attorneys, and advocates about the federal and state laws and policies that govern foster care and adoption, so that children are protected, their well-being is maintained while in care, and positive and timely permanency can be achieved;
• communicating legislative and policy changes, along with information about best practices, in a timely manner to over 3,000 Texas judges and lawyers who handle child protection cases around the state;
• convening robust roundtable discussions about critical and urgent issues, such as permanency for children, the use of mediation, and the child’s voice in court and in case development, among other topics;
• supporting committees and workgroups formed to address specific and timely issues (for example, expanding the understanding of trauma associated with child abuse and neglect, preventing human trafficking, and improving legal representation for all parties, including the state child protection agency); and
• engaging more than 500 stakeholders statewide across the child protection, legal, education, mental health, and other systems.
Child protection law is a very specialized field, and the Children’s Commission aims to support and strengthen the response in the legal system to the complex and challenging issues presented in this area of law. In addition to the breadth of the above work, the Children’s Commission has produced multiple training classes, resources, and tools to address the needs of the legal community, including information that may be of value to prosecutors.
Resources for attorneys
The Children’s Commission supports high-quality training for attorneys practicing child protection law through partnerships with the State Bar of Texas, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, Texas District and County Attorneys Association, and Texas Center for the Judiciary. The Children’s Commission also provides in-house training opportunities, including webcasts. Every year the Children’s Commission also presents a Texas-specific hands-on Trial Skills Training that is designed for less-experienced attorneys to enhance their legal representation skills through a simulated child protection court case. Each Trial Skills Training includes an equal number of parents’ attorneys, children’s attorneys, and prosecutors, all of whom can practice their litigation skills without the pressure of having a family’s future in the balance.
There are various free resources and tools available on the Commission’s website (www.texaschildrenscommission.gov) to support attorneys and judges in the practice of child protection law. Some resources for prosecutors include:
• the Child Protection Law Bench Book, which includes chapters on hearings and legal requirements, as well as topical issues such as evidence and the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children.
• Tool Kit for Attorneys Representing the Texas Department of Family & Protective Services in Child Protection Cases, and
• Tool Kit for Attorneys Representing Parents and Children in Child Protection Cases. The tool kits cover essential legal basics at a glance, including pleadings, motions, evidentiary issues, hearing checklists, and related federal law issues. The tool kits also include concurrent and special issues related to child protection cases.
• the Parent Resource Guide in English and Spanish. The Parent Resource Guide is a handbook to help parents understand the Texas child protection system, their role and responsibilities when involved in a Child Protective Services case, and the roles and responsibilities of others.
• the Family Helpline, which assists callers with legal information and education but does not offer legal advice or establish an attorney-client relationship with callers. Parents will be given referrals to local resources that benefit children, families, and the community at large. The Family Helpline is available Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and can be reached at 844/888-6565.
For more information about the Children’s Commission, please email [email protected] .gov or visit the website. Additionally, you may subscribe to receive Resource Letters for Attorneys from the Children’s Commission, which include useful information and announcements about changes in law, practice, or policy, as well as upcoming trainings and scholarships available for attorneys practicing child protection law.
 Available at http://texaschildrenscommission.gov/for-judges/bench-book.
 Available at http://parentresourceguide.texaschildrenscommission.gov.