SHERIDAN — Abuse and neglect can be overwhelming ordeals for a child, made more difficult by an arduous journey through the court system on the way to stability. The Children’s Justice Project is the Wyoming Supreme Court’s way of making that journey a little easier to travel.
The Wyoming Supreme Court started the CJP in 1999, utilizing funds that the federal government provides to all 50 states to help children, families and tribes at risk or in crisis. Part of those provisions are for each state to make an assessment of their foster care and adoption laws and processes and to develop plans for a better system.
“The CJP focuses on abuse and neglect situations with court-involved cases,” CJP coordinator Eydie Trautwein said. “One of our purposes is to specialize quality representation for the families in these cases. When they have quality representation, then the process can move smoothly and quickly.”
The process is complex, ranging from determining if a child needs to be taken from the home to whether charges need to be filed against the parents or guardians. Determinations have to be made concerning what charges need to be filed. Child abuse charges are criminal, but removing a child from custody is a civil matter. It can take the combined efforts of defense attorneys, prosecutors, advocates, the Department of Family Services, therapists and judges to maneuver the process.
Members of the CJP advisory council are appointed by the Wyoming Supreme Court chief justice and include district court judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, state legislators and a tribal representative to help deal with complex issues concerning the Arapaho and Shoshoni tribes in Wyoming. The council meets quarterly, often through teleconferencing, and has a conference once a year.
Sheridan Deputy County Attorney Sheryl Bunting is part of the CJP council as is 4th Judicial District Court Judge John Fenn.
Bunting has been a guardian ad litem, representing the interest of children in cases, and a parents’ attorney, representing them in court as well. In law school, she said, she knew she wanted to help people, but she didn’t know what direction that would take.
“I’ve been on every side of the table, so to speak,” Bunting said. “One of the things the CJP does is have someone on every side of the table who are mindful of federal legislation efforts concerning abused and neglected children.”
Members of the council are experienced in their field be it as an attorney, a judge or a state legislator.
Permanent placement of children in abusive situations is a goal for the CJP.
According to a 2008 report by the U. S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, remaining too long in temporary foster care homes can further harm children already in crisis. Sadly, that kind of permanency isn’t always possible.
“There are issues we don’t know about yet,” Bunting said. “Sometimes we have a kid who is so traumatized and so damaged, we’ll place them with a family and it will all fall apart. Then they have to deal with another loss, another trauma and another feeling of being abandoned.”
The CJP tries to keep the entire process — from filing charges to placing children in safe homes to terminating parental rights or rehabilitating parents — running smoothly, making sure families have quality advocates for both sides of a custodial issue.
The organization also produces several books and manuals including bench books for attorneys and judges new to the process and children’s books helping explain the court process to kids.
“There’s books for kids at different age levels and some for parents so everyone knows what’s happening throughout the process,” Bunting said. “There are also scholarships for judges and attorneys to attend trainings across the country.”
“We’re really lucky (in Sheridan County),” Bunting said. “Everyone here seems to be on the same page, from the defense attorneys, to the prosecutors, to the judges to DFS, even the therapists and the schools.”
Trautwein said the legal world can change very quickly, though.
“In these last elections, there were 13 new county attorneys elected across the state,” Trautwein said. “That could mean new attorneys who have no experience in juvenile justice.”
At the heart of the matter, the project’s goal is to provide better outcomes for children facing trauma from abuse and neglect who need a safe place to call home.
“We’re kind of the quality assurance of the program,” Trautwein said. “It’s our job to see that no family languishes in the court system.”