The success of the internship program led to the development of a full-time post-graduate fellowship program in child welfare law. In August 2006, the first two attorneys were appointed as Vitousek-King Fellows in honor of the Honorable Betty Vitousek and the Honorable Samuel King, both pioneers in Hawai‘i's Family Court system. Generally, Fellows are appointed for one-year terms and must possess a Juris Doctor degree, as well as experience in a Hawai‘i Family Court or in child abuse and neglect issues. Fellows work on a variety of Judiciary Court Improvement Program initiatives and DHS Program Improvement Plan projects, including:
Zero to Three Court Teams for Maltreated Infants and Toddlers
In 2008, Honolulu was selected as one of only eight sites nationwide to participate as a Zero To Three Court program, a federally funded program that "combines judicial muscle with child development and mental health community partners so that babies and toddlers [in foster care] are given the attention and life-changing help they need." (See Zero To Three website) The judge leads a team of child welfare and health professionals, child advocates, service providers and other community stakeholders to provide coordinated and specialized services for abused and neglected infants and toddlers.
Law Fellows have supported the establishment of the Zero To Three Court project and worked closely with the Lead Judges throughout its development. For example, Law Fellows assisted with several "early intervention" workshops and gatherings to educate Judiciary, DHS and community stakeholders about the underlying science of early childhood development. They also organized Zero To Three Collaborative Team meetings, arranged site visits to court programs in Oregon, and assisted with technical support visits from Zero To Three court staff and service providers from Des Moines, Iowa and the national Director of Zero To Three's Court Teams, Lucy Hudson.
Most recently, Law Fellows are working with the Lead Judges to conduct research on best court practices for infants and toddlers in foster care and the underlying science of early childhood development. Fellows also work closely with court administrators and community stakeholders to develop the infrastructure for the Zero To Three Court.
O'ahu Child Welfare Mediation Program (OCWMP)
The OCWMP, formerly known as the Judicial Pretrial Assistance Program, is a Family Court mediation program for child welfare cases. Over the past decade, child welfare mediation (aka "dependency mediation") has become an increasingly accepted and successful method of alternative dispute resolution in these cases. Dependency mediation programs across the country report benefits such as high participant satisfaction, fewer trials and contested hearings, and greater parental compliance with services.
Fellows are working closely with the OCWMP Lead Judge and key stakeholders to strengthen the program and build infrastructure to enable the OCWMP to provide the maximum benefit to children and families. Fellows' work has included: mediation training, extensive research on dependency mediation and programs across the country, meetings with key stakeholder groups on O'ahu, site visits with model programs in California, development of a training curriculum for new mediators, and grant writing to procure funding for long-term program sustainability. Fellows will continue to build upon their work as they prepare the OCWMP for a year-long pilot period to begin at the end of January 2009.
Resources for Foster Youth
Recognizing the importance of empowering youth with information, Fellows are developing age-appropriate resource materials specifically designed to help foster youth navigate the child welfare system.
- Foster Youth Resource Video In collaboration with the Hawai‘i Foster Youth Coalition and the DHS, Fellows are producing a resource video about programs and services available to youth who are in foster care. The video is meant to disseminate information and encourage youth to take advantages of the resources available to them. Portions of this video, entitled "Moving Through & Beyond Foster Care," were premiered at the "Ohana II: Nothing About Us Without Us" conference in March 2008.
- Foster Youth Self-Advocacy Handbook While each foster youth has a court-appointed Guardian ad Litem who represents his or her best interests in Court, foster youth can also be their own advocates. Fellows are developing a self-advocacy handbook to help foster youth be advocates in their own cases and in their daily lives. The handbook will include advocacy tips, as well as information about the foster care system, youth rights, education, and transitioning out of foster care. This handbook will be distributed to foster youth statewide by social workers and Guardians ad Litem.
Current projects focus on self-advocacy tools for older youth (age 13 and older). Future projects will include the development of age-appropriate handbooks for foster youth in the elementary school and pre-teen age groups.
Tracking Educational Needs of Foster Care Children
Law Fellows are currently engaged in a project to track the educational needs of children in foster care. The intent of this project is to improve the experiences of youth in foster care by studying ways to better address the educational needs of these young people. Studies around the country have found that youth in foster care are less successful academically than their peers. Several factors have been identified as contributing to this problem. Educational continuity is often interrupted for foster children when they experience a change in placement; this can lead to lost credits and even repeated grades. Because the primary concern of the Family Court and social welfare system is the health and safety of foster youth, educational issues may take a back seat. Foster youth may also lack a consistent, informed educational advocate to represent their educational interests. While these barriers lead to diminished academic and professional success, they also impact the immediate personal welfare of foster youth. Many foster youth are insecure about their foster status and distrustful of new relationships. The social network at school may represent the most reliable and permanent support system for some foster youth. For all these reasons, a focus on improving the educational services received by foster students is likely to result in an improvement in the overall wellbeing of foster youth.
The project consists of three main research components. The first is a survey of the research and different ameliorative approaches from around the country. The second is a quantitative analysis of achievement data for foster youth in Hawaiʻi, to establish whether an achievement gap exists in Hawaiʻi, and if so, what is its magnitude. The third component involves collecting qualitative data from foster youth, educators, administrators, foster parents, and advocates. This data will identify the nature of the obstacles facing Hawaiʻi's foster youth in the educational arena. On the basis of this data and the best practices from around the country, Law Fellows will propose improvements that might include changes in the training and procedures of Family Court and DHS personnel, specific educational initiatives, or legislative proposals. The Judiciary's Standing Committee on Children in Family Court has asked for periodic reports on the project's progress.
- DHS Strategic Planning Committee. Fellows sit on a DHS strategic planning committee that focuses on addressing the overrepresentation of Native Hawaiian children in child welfare cases. Recent work involved the coordination of a statewide community event in Waimanalo to engage community members and resource providers in discussions about how to effectively address this issue.
- Ho'olokahi Program. Fellows train and supervise new Parent Facilitators with the Ho'olokahi Program and provide staff coverage as needed. In 2006, Fellows also worked on an evaluation of the parents counsel system and presented a report to the Family Court detailing the results of the evaluation and recommendations for further improvement.
- Quality Case Reviews. The Hawai‘i Child Welfare Continuous Quality Improvement Project conducts comprehensive case reviews in preparation for the federal Child & Family Services Review. Fellows participate in the case reviews to help identify areas of strength and areas needing improvement in Child Welfare Services agency practice.
- Child Welfare Conferences. Fellows regularly assist with planning and staffing various child welfare conferences. The following are some of the conferences for which Law Fellows have sat on planning committees along with Family Court judges, DHS administrators, foster youth, and service providers.
- "Promoting Healthy Outcomes for Maltreated Infants and Toddlers," September 2006
- "Serving Infants and Toddlers: Early Intervention and Prevention," June 2007
- "'Ohana I: Ensuring Permanency and Family Connections for Hawai‘i's Keiki," July 2007
- "'Ohana II: Nothing About Us Without Us," March 2008
- "Effective Early Intervention for Infants and Toddlers in the Child Welfare System," March 2008
- "'Ohana III," March 2009
Fellows also have the opportunity to teach Law School courses as adjunct professors. In the past, Fellows have co-taught the Family Law Clinic and Child Welfare Clinic courses. As adjunct professors, Fellows are expected to develop course curriculum, lead weekly class discussions, and mentor students in "hands-on" clinic activities.