B. Addressing Equity

Many Texas judges want to know what they can do to combat disproportionality from the bench. As community leaders, judges are in a key position to lead efforts in their jurisdiction to address these important issues. Advancing equity in the child welfare system requires acknowledgement of the existing disparities and understanding root causes. Understanding the history of the community which a judge serves will provide a more robust context in which to assist the children and families before the court. Asking the question, “What is the family looking for and what does this family need?” will be easier to answer when acknowledging the breadth of each person's identity and experiences.

Efforts to partner across systems to provide training and strengthen awareness are ongoing. In March 2023, the Department of Family and Protective Services Disproportionality Managers co-presented a CLE entitled “Increasing Awareness and Advocacy around Disproportionality,” at the State Bar of Texas' 5th Annual Advanced Child Protection Law Course.

In 2016, the Supreme Court of Texas and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals spearheaded the Beyond the Bench: Law, Justice, and Communities Summit. The Summit brought together leaders from various sectors of the community and participants generated several “Big Ideas” to addressing disproportionality and disparity. The ideas generated from this Summit provide practical steps for judges seeking to address disproportionality within their jurisdiction.

Some of these “Big Ideas” from the Summit as well as additional efforts that may be helpful in advancing equity at the local level include:

•   Convene judicially-led community meetings (or Courageous Conversations) to discuss planning, data, and desired outcomes in the context of the administration of justice.

◦   engaging diverse populations and community stakeholders in meaningful conversations and practice improvement will provide more meaningful avenues for change.[258] Local leaders in equity work might be good partners to inform and further efforts to address these issues in child welfare.

◦   obtaining and understanding a court's data as it relates to disproportionality and disparity.

•   Work with court stakeholders to understand and address issues presented by local and regional data. Ask an independent party or organization, outside of the court, to track demographics including race with the intention of evaluating and checking assumptions about what the data reveals.

•   Explore the need, feasibility, and sustainability of a specialty court docket such as drug, mental health, and veteran courts.

◦   consult the Texas Specialty Courts Resource Center for support and more information.

•   Educate all members of the court system about the various roles others have to create a more unified system that can help with all aspects of the needs of the individuals.

•   Prioritize training regarding implicit bias for all court stakeholders.

◦   there are many trainings available on equity and implicit bias, in-person and online, that can educate court staff.

•   Utilize a checklist to provide reminders during a case to be aware of and guard against bias. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) developed the Courts Catalyzing Change Preliminary Protective Hearing Benchcard, a practical and concrete judicial tool for use at the first court hearing. This bench card reflects best practices for one of the most critical stages in a child abuse and neglect case.[259] Additionally, the Children's Commission has created a bench card for quick reference. Please see the Practical First Steps to Address Disproportionality and Implicit Bias Bench Card in the Checklist section of this Bench Book.

◦   creating common language among court stakeholders is an important step to establish an understanding of race equity and inclusion principles.[260]

Special Issue: To obtain child welfare data broken down by race and ethnicity for a specific jurisdiction, judges can reach out to their DFPS Regional Director. Judges can also access public data on the DFPS Data Book.

Key concepts to understand include:

•   Equity refers to “the effort to provide different levels of support based on an individual's or group's needs in order to achieve fairness in outcomes. Working to achieve equity acknowledges unequal starting places and the need to correct the imbalance.”[261]

•   Structural, institutional, or systemic bias refers to a “set of processes that produce unfairness in the courtroom . . . [which] lock in past inequalities, reproduce them, and . . . exacerbate them . . . without formally treating persons worse simply because of attitudes and stereotypes about the groups to which they belong.” [262]

•   Explicit bias “refers to attitudes and beliefs that are consciously held about a person or group of people.”[263]

•   Implicit bias “refers to subconscious feelings, attitudes, and stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decision-making processes in an unconscious manner.”[264]