Before writing to the judge, foster parents need to know a few things to give the letter the best chance of being taken seriously by the judge (and not being "thrown out" of court).
1. You are allowed to write to the judge.
Many foster parents do not know that any "interested party" can communicate with the judge who oversees a dependency case. I talk to foster parents every day who are upset about poor decisions that put the children in their care at risk or leave them without medically necessary services, and these foster parents often feel helpless. While there may be times when all legal options have been exhausted or when the law is not on the side of the child, many foster parents have never been taught how to navigate the bureaucracy or the legal system to advocate for the children in their care. Yes, you can write to the judge, but you need to follow a few rules to ensure your letter can be considered by the judge.
2. You must send the letter to all legal parties.
When someone communicates with the judge without the knowledge of and full disclosure to all of the "parties" to the case, it's called an ex parte communication, and it's against the rules. In other words, if a foster parent sends a letter to the judge but does not ensure it is received by all of the parties to the case, then the letter could be thrown out of court, and the judge may not be allowed to consider any information in the letter.
In most court systems, there is a simple process for foster parents (or another "interested party") to distribute a letter to the legal parties to the case. Sometimes, you can simply ask the caseworker, guardian ad litem, or court-appointed advocate to attach the letter to their report. Sometimes, you may need to call the judge's clerk, the caseworker or one of the lawyers to get contact information for each party to the case to distribute the letter yourself. Some states even have an easy-to-use form that you can fill out and submit to the court, and some courts even take care of distribution to legal parties. Find out how--specifically in your court system--to send your letter to all legal parties on the case.
3. Keep your opinion out of it.
Stick to facts that have been documented and whatever you directly observe. When your letter strays into opinions, you lose credibility with the judge, and your letter could even be thrown out of court. In the worst case scenario, children could be removed if the judge believes you cannot support the current case plan. If you really must give an opinion, then you need to show you are an expert in the area that you are giving an opinion. For example, you should only list a mental health diagnosis for a child in your care if you are citing a mental health professional who is qualified to make that diagnosis (or if you are a mental health professional qualified to make that diagnosis). Also, be careful about attributing behaviors to certain emotions. Sometimes, foster parents will say that a child cries after visits because the visits are traumatic, but lawyers may argue that the child cries because he misses his parents--and this is often the truth. State only what you observed, not your opinion about it.
4. Cite the sources of your information.
When you communicate information that you did not directly observe or information in an area in which you are not an expert, always cite the source and date of the information. "According to the mental health evaluation conducted on October 3...." or "According to the caseworker, during our conversation at the August visit...." or "The Foster Care Review Board report dated July 7 says...." or "On November 18, the child told...." When you provide information that you did not directly observe without citing the source, that information may be called into question or not considered at all. Your letter could even be "thrown out" and not be considered at all.
5. Provide specific, objective information.
In court, words like "most" or "several" or "many" are nonspecific. Everything you write needs to be objective (factual, not opinion), specific and measurable (give it a number). Rather than writing, for example, that "most" visits are canceled, be specific about what "most" means. Instead, of using nonspecific language, show the numbers. For example, "Visits have been scheduled every Saturday for the last 12 weeks, but 10 of those visits were cancelled." But do not say, "Most of the visits have been canceled." Don't leave the judge guessing what "most" means to you--just take those nonspecific words out of your letter-writing vocabulary and use specifics for every piece of information you present. In order to do this, you will need to pay special attention to #6 as the case progresses.
6. Maintain quality documentation before you need it.
There is a reason that caseworkers spend a lot of time documenting everything that happens with a case. When it comes time to communicate with the judge, you will need information, paperwork, and dates at your fingertips so that you can backup your facts with citations showing where you got your information or where/when you observed it. We recommend that you keep all of the information pertaining to each child organized in a notebook that you update continuously, and carry it to every Child and Family Team meeting, staffing, and appointment. Arizona's FIRST Advisory Commission has a printable notebook organizer (PDF) to help you create and maintain a child case record notebook, and it even includes tips for documentation, case updates, and more.
7. Keep your letter focused on what matters.
When foster parents ask me about writing to the judge, there is almost always something crucial happening in the case. Keep your letter focused on what really matters right now. The judge does not need mundane details of the child's life. Sure, it's great that your child just won the spelling bee, but if you're concerned that the child is hearing voices, and no mental health services are available, then writing a paragraph about the spelling bee just wastes ink and the judge's time.
When you write too much, the judge may decide to "skim" the letter and may miss the critical points you are making. You don't want the judge to start skimming your letter. Cut anything that is irrelevant to your goal. Make every word count.
8. Don't throw the caseworker under the bus.
It's easy to blame the caseworker for everything that goes wrong on a case. However, caseworkers are often under enormous pressure to follow specific laws, regulations, and procedures that may not line up with every unique case. In some states, caseworkers have such high caseloads that it is impossible for them to document cases appropriately. When a caseworker has to drive all over a large county to see 50 kids every month (for example, in Arizona), attend court hearings, attend Foster Care Review Boards, attend child and family meetings, write court reports, meet with biological parents every month, create reunification service plans, order services, document happenings, deal with crises and more, that caseworker is not going to know the child or the case as well as the foster parent who is only responsible for one to five children in foster care. This is why it is important for foster parents to write a letter to the judge, and this is also why #9 is so very important.
9. Send the caseworker written updates regularly.
Rather than assuming the caseworker has time to write down and remember every detail of visits and conversations, you can help your caseworker document the case. Send concise, objective updates on a regular basis -- each week is great. We recommend that you send these updates to the caseworker via email, and CC the child's lawyer, the child's therapist, the child's court-appointed advocate, and other members of the team who make recommendations on the case. The caseworker will put your updates in the child's file, and when it's time for the caseworker to document the case, reassess the case, or write the court report, all of the important information that you sent will be at the caseworker's fingertips, which can help ensure the best outcome for the child, whether that is reunification or another type of permanency. This also helps set you, the foster parent, up as a valuable team player. If your updates are regular, helpful, and truly objective, and you prove yourself to be an objective, honest, and reliable reporter of the facts, then you will also find yourself treated as a more professional member of the team.
Bonus tip: Always ask a trusted team member (the child's caseworker, the child's best interest attorney, your foster licensing social worker) to review and edit the letter before distributing. Sometimes, foster parents may not understand the legalities of the case, and asking one of the professional team members to help can ensure your letter does not damage the case.