The Iowa judicial system was “turned on its head” by the coronavirus pandemic, Chief Justice Susan Christensen told lawmakers Wednesday, but the system survived through the “hard work, tenacity and sheer guts” of judicial branch employees.
“We couldn’t just shut the doors and say, ‘Come back when things are better,’ ” Christensen said in her first Condition of the Judiciary speech to a joint session of the Iowa Legislature.
“And it’s not like people have a choice to go to court — we tend to send out something called a subpoena or summons when we want someone to show up, not invitations with an RSVP.”
As the mother of a son with cerebral palsy, Christensen said she’s been guided by the saying, “We cannot change the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”
When the Legislature and much of state government suspended their usual activities in March, the chief justice posed the question: “If COVID-19 is now the wind of which we cannot change, how can the judicial branch adjust its sails?”
The judicial branch issued a statement that although access to justice may look different and require more patience during the pandemic, “it will not succumb to COVID-19.”
Changes included suspending in-person trials, and relying on technology to conduct court hearings remotely.
Christensen highlighted a pilot program in two judicial districts that seeks to spread the workload across the district rather than by county.
For example, if there is a staff shortage in Pottawattamie County, the workload is distributed across the district’s other eight counties. Spreading that workload helps justify keeping rural courthouse offices open where the workload might not justify current staffing.
The program “keeps each county relevant — no matter the size. That’s a really good thing,” Christensen said.
The chief justice also outlined two priorities for the judicial system: a “family-first” approach to dealing with child welfare and elevating the presence of family treatment courts.
In the past, Christensen said, federal funding could be accessed only when a court order had been issued removing a child from his or her home.
“That’s wrong,” she said, because studies show children experience long-term trauma when removed from their home, and foster care “may, at times, be worse than any trauma associated with staying in the home.”
Using the family-first approach, families in crisis receive services sooner, before a child is removed from the home.
Christensen also called attention to another family-first program — “4 Questions, 7 Judges” — aimed at avoiding the removal of children from their families.
Over a four-month period of time, seven judges in a pilot program received a combined 83 requests for removal of children. Nearly half of those requests were denied, which means those children stayed home.
Out of the 44 requests for removal that were granted, more than half of those children were placed with biological family members or family friends. Only 15 out of 83 requests sent children to foster care.
Christensen’s second priority, elevating family treatment courts, attempts to address matters such as child abuse and child neglect by targeting the root causes of a crisis.
Treatment courts give people the help they need to transition out of the justice system and into a healthier, productive life, Christensen said.
In addition to the benefits to the children and their families, the approach has saved nearly $18 million in “cost avoidance” since 2007, Christensen said. It also has allowed a strong majority of the families involved to remain together and receive treatment.