Kids in court

Alaska's court system looks at how it handles children

Posted: Sunday, July 18, 2004

The dinner table at the Sims home is always busy.

On any given day, it's common to have 11 children at the table.

Leonard and Rena Sims have five biological children - four in their 20s and one who is 8. They adopted five children who had been under their foster care. They also look after children who are transitioning from a foster home to their parents' house. And they shelter children who are grown but have no place to go.

Each of the children the couple adopted or fostered came with different labels, which ranged from abused or neglected child to victim of sexual assault to juvenile delinquent.

"We don't care what they did before. We make them accountable for today," said Leonard Sims, a 52-year-old electrician for the Juneau School District. "We want them to have a brand-new start. They will have more than enough food to eat and a lot of love."

Whenever they have a new child, the Sims take him or her to buy clothes. They throw a big welcome party, and treat the child like every other child under their roof.

However, not every child who goes through the court system is as lucky as those staying with the Sims, who are willing to get loans to send their adopted children to private schools, and take all the children who stay with them on family trips.

Foster parents receive $22.64 a day for each teenager and $19.07 for a younger child.

Insufficient financial support is only one of many problems people who deal with children's cases identified in a workshop last Monday.

In the workshop, called "Children in the court system," judges, government officials, private lawyers and social workers examined the strengths and weaknesses of Alaska's court system to find ways to better serve children.

"This is an opportunity to bring people involved to have a roundtable discussion, where they don't focus on a specific case and can step back and take a look at the system," said Barbara Hood, court initiative attorney for the Alaska Court System.

A coordinator of a federally sponsored program called "Children in Alaska's Courts," Hood held a series of community forums throughout Alaska. Juneau was her third stop.

"Part of our purpose is to identify regional differences," Hood said. "For example, one of the strengths of Juneau's system is the effective use of mediation in child custody cases. This hasn't been the case in some other communities, and they can learn from Juneau."

The workshop focused on four fields: children in need of aid because they are abused or neglected, juvenile delinquency, domestic violence, and divorce and custody.

Participants named many strengths of the court system in Southeast.

A family is assigned to one judge until the case is closed. Case management is efficient. Judges are well trained and knowledgeable. And perhaps most important, everyone involved in the process has the children's best interest in mind. For the past 15 years, public defenders, judges, social workers and lawyers have met every six months to examine the court system.

"We work in the spirit of cooperation," said Juneau Superior Court Judge Larry Weeks. "In a case that is involved with children, there's no winning or losing. It's easy for one side to win with the child losing."

The workshop participants also identified many weaknesses.

"We don't have enough funding for treatment programs for parents who have substance abuse problems," Weeks said. "If they don't get help, they don't get better. If they don't get better, they don't treat their children better."

There is a lack of funding for children's services, participants said.

"We don't have enough counselors to help children deal with trauma. We don't have enough foster homes when we need to place them. There is especially a huge shortage of foster homes for teenagers," said Janine Reep, who has acted as a guardian ad litem for five years.

A guardian ad litem is appointed by the court to look out for a child's best interests during the course of legal proceedings.

Although about a fifth of the cases that are referred to the city attorney's office involve domestic violence, Juneau doesn't have a program to educate batterers. The nonprofit Tongass Community Counseling Center, which provided counseling to batterers, closed its door a year ago after losing state funding.

In child custody cases, Juneau doesn't have a custody investigator anymore.

"In custody cases, a 2000 court rule said guardians ad litem shall not testify. In Juneau, we don't have a custody investigator to dig out all the things that are important for a judge to make decisions," said Supreme Court Justice Walter Carpeneti.

Participants said they learned a lot from others at the meeting.

"It is important to improve the system so the kids won't return to the system. But sadly, many of them do," said Judge Weeks. "The first time I see them, they are abused or neglected. The second time I see them, they are juvenile delinquents. Then the next time I see them, they are criminals. We need to break the chain somewhere."

The Sims said they hope their house is the last stop for the children they are looking after.

"It takes at least six months for the kids to believe that they don't have to hide bread in their drawers or their backpacks. They don't need to block their doors at night. And they don't need to pretend they had a fever to knock on our door in the middle of the night," said Rena Sims, 46. "This is a home, a safe haven for them."

• I-Chun Che can be reached at ichun.che@juneauempire.com.



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