2018 Court News Events

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Families and Children in the Court, Substance and Mental Health Issues work to 'break down our silos'

By Judge Christine Greider and Judge Steve Leifman

As chairs of the Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court and the Task Force on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues in the Courts, we are pleased to report on a productive joint meeting that took place involving these two Supreme Court governance groups. Members of the Steering Committee and Task Force convened in Tampa on Feb. 22 to collaborate on important overarching issues.

The Steering Committee’s goal has historically been to establish a fully integrated, comprehensive approach to handling all cases involving children and families, while the Task Force has been charged to address the needs and challenges of individuals with serious mental illnesses and substance use disorders who become involved in the justice system. Both of these groups address incredibly complex, deeply-rooted societal problems that require community-wide responses to have a chance at being solved.

Addressing these problems from silos is ineffective. As chairs of these two groups, we are very grateful for the opportunity to work with such committed judges, magistrates, and court leaders who have been spearheading systems change initiatives at community and statewide levels. But the courts alone cannot solve these vexing issues, which is why we are also fortunate that the Steering Committee and Task Force is comprised of stakeholders spanning a vast array of disciplines, including representatives from school districts, behavioral and mental health organizations, universities, the Agency for Health Care Administration, the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Department of Health, the Guardian ad Litem Program, state attorney offices, public defender offices, the private bar, and other community organizations.

It’s no surprise that crossover issues have emerged that these two groups have been concurrently tackling. These overlapping issues, along with the recognition that we must break down our silos to effectively solve these problems, served as the impetus for this joint meeting. Between the two groups, over 60 members attended the meeting; Justice Barbara Pariente and Justice Peggy Quince, the Supreme Court liaisons for the Steering Committee and Task Force respectively, attended as well. As a result of attending, members from both groups were able to discuss common initiatives and determine the necessary follow-up actions.

The first issue that members addressed was problem-solving court standards and certification. This issue of consistency and institutionalization of practice – that is maintained across judicial rotations and staff turnover — is of paramount importance in the handling of both family and criminal court cases. In a previous term, the Task Force developed Adult Drug Court Best Practice Standards, which were subsequently approved by the Supreme Court. A subcommittee of the Task Force is currently working on a proposed certification framework for the approved standards that will ensure that drug courts are operating with fidelity to the standards. Task Force members shared with Steering Committee members the process they went through in creating the standards as well as the ongoing work to develop a certification framework. This topic is directly related to a current initiative of the Steering Committee in the area of pursuing best practice standards for Early Childhood Courts, Florida’s newest problem-solving court docket. The Steering Committee has mirrored the efforts of the Task Force by developing Early Childhood Court best practice standards, with the goal of the standards being approved by the Supreme Court. During yesterday’s meeting, it was extremely helpful for Steering Committee members to hear from Task Force members on the lessons learned in regard to the development and implementation of their standards. The Steering Committee members who are currently embarking down this parallel path for Early Childhood Court standards left the meeting armed with the knowledge of pitfalls to avoid and promising practices to employ. As a result of the meeting, the Task Force fidelity workgroup will review the Steering Committee’s Early Childhood Court Standards and provide feedback.

The Baker Act is another overarching issue that is currently being addressed by both groups and was discussed at the meeting. The Task Force is charged with monitoring the implementation of recent legislative changes relating to the Baker Act and providing training and technical assistance on how the changes should apply to the judicial processing of Baker Act cases. Task Force members have examined the Baker Act process from many angles, including assessment, evaluation, and receipt of services. The Steering Committee has focused on juvenile Baker Acts within the context of its monitoring of school-justice partnerships that ensure children involved in family court cases stay in school and are less likely to be arrested, suspended, or expelled. The recent reduction in school-related arrests, expulsions, and arrests, coupled with an uptick in juvenile Baker Acts prompted the Steering Committee to look at this relationship more closely. Steering Committee and Task Force members discussed current Baker Act legislation, the recent Task Force on Involuntary Minors report, and commonalities between each group’s Baker Act initiatives.

For several years, the Steering Committee has been promoting trauma-responsive practices for family courts to adopt and use. A product of these effort is the Steering Committee’s Trauma and Child Development Family Court Tool Kit. In addition, OSCA has developed a trauma curriculum that judicial circuits can use to conduct local trauma-responsive court trainings. The discussion at yesterday’s meeting prompted the expansion of the tool kit and curriculum to be applied to all case types since trauma is certainly a primary factor in drug courts, mental health courts, veterans courts, and criminal courts as a whole. As a result of the meeting, pertinent information and practices will be imported from the trauma tool kit and be applied to other case types.

Lastly, both of these groups shared ideas on judicial branch strategies to address the opioid crisis. As with the other issues discussed at this meeting, the sentiment was expressed that we must not operate out of our individual silos to address this epidemic. And with state and federal funds and technical assistance coming in to the state from so many directions, it is imperative that we also ensure that new silos are not created to accompany the influx of new resources. Members also expressed how vital it is that we do not lose sight of addiction treatment for other drugs since Florida’s addiction problem is not limited to any particular substance. After a legislative update, an overview of state and federal funding resources, and case-type-specific responses, Steering Committee and Task Force members brainstormed court-related approaches to the crisis in the following four domains: judicial education, judicial leadership, judicial decision making, and the role of chief judges and trial court administrators. Both groups believe strongly that a comprehensive and coordinated court response to the opioid crisis is a prudent use of government funds and is in the best interest of children, families, and judicial economy.

With the 2016-2018 Steering Committee and Task Force terms coming to an end in June, this meeting offered an opportunity to reflect on all of the great work that has been going on across the state and also served as a catalyst to continue pushing this important work forward in new and challenging directions. We would both like to sincerely thank all of the members for their engagement, and we look forward to more collaborations in the future.

(posted February 2018) / Return to top of page