“Their Wellbeing is Important”: How Judge Carlos Villalon Jr. Honors Youth
A TYPS On The Road Feature Spotlight
In the last six months, The Texas Youth Permanency Study (TYPS) has been revving up its youth engagement in exciting ways. As a refresher, TYPS is a five-year study that is examining the long-term outcomes for youth in the Texas Foster Care System. TYPS is the first study of its kind to recruit and then follow 500 foster youth between the ages of 14-21 through the three different types of permanency outcomes that can occur for children in foster care (i.e., reunite with their family and leave the system, be adopted, or age out of care).
As we continue making connections with our 500 Texas youth participants, we have decided to highlight stories from our travels across the state. In this new quarterly blog series that we’re calling “TYPS On The Road,” we will be diving into various perspectives from communities that are directly offering support to foster youth in various parts of Texas.
Typically, the thought of going to court can seem really daunting to pretty much anyone. For many foster youth, however, going to court is a way to get their voices heard and feel like they are actively participating in decisions that impact their lives.
“Well, the relationship with my attorney was freaking awesome,” Says one participant in the TYPS study. “She was a great attorney, and she helped me – She helped me out a lot. … She tried to get everything done that me and my sister wanted done. You know? I would go all the time [to court hearings] … he, too, would hear me out … So, I mean, he was, overall, a pretty good judge.”
In practice, however, many foster youth face barriers to attending court hearings and speaking with the judge presiding over their case.
Recognizing this barrier to entry, there are certain courts across Texas that are taking innovative steps to increase youth attendance by making court a more welcoming space. The Honorable Carlos Villalon Jr., who was appointed as Associate Judge for the Child Protection Court of the Rio Grande Valley West on June 4, 2012, and serves both Hidalgo and Starr Counties, is exploring new strategies to engage youth in court proceedings.
“When children come to court, I want them to understand that they can speak to me if they wish to do so,” Says Judge Villalon. “Growing up as a military dependent myself, I can understand the frequent movements and school changes that these children experience. And as difficult as it was for me, I cannot imagine how hard it must be for youth when their family and home setting changes entirely. I want them to know that their wellbeing is important to me.”
Judge Villalon observes the following benefits when children and youth attend court: “Children who come to court get to see their parents, hear about their progress and their own wellbeing update, raise concerns to the court by way of their attorney or in chambers, and gain a better idea about when they might be able to go home.”
When asked about his recommendations for other judges who are working toward increasing youth attendance in court, Judge Villalon had several thoughts:
“Make it mandatory. You will get complaints from foster parents and DFPS. These children have a right to be present and if you can’t bring them, then you can’t have them.
Many are worried about re-traumatizing the children. These children have seen much worse already. To exclude them from the process is to silence and isolate them, which is, in my opinion, abusive and not much different than locking them in the closet. Have them there and see how they are (alert, drugged, happy, sad), see how they interact with the parent, and let them know that they are the most important part of a case.
I would recommend timing the docket to avoid lengthy wait times. In most of our cases, children will not have to wait more than an hour for their case to be called. Hold court in an area that is away from most other court traffic to avoid complaints from other judges.”
In Judge Villalon’s courtroom, he is already hard at work on implementing his goals for the next year: “I would like to develop more specialized dockets. I have already seen the benefits of our 16 and over docket and would like to develop dockets for infants and toddlers. I want to continue to focus on trauma informed practices and eventually get everyone on the same page as to how we interact and help these families. I also want to expand stakeholder involvement with our families. I see further collaboration with our universities, schools, and churches to fill resource gaps and improve the wellbeing of children and families.”