Dec. 5, 2019

Judge’s Tough Approach to Foster Care


Judge’s tough approach to foster care is transforming New Orleans. When you enter Judge Ernestine S. Gray’s courtroom it looks more like a preschool than a courtroom. There is a bookcase full of children’s classics and stuffed animals of every shape, size, and species.

Making the Worst Day Better

Juvenile Court Judge Ernestine S. Gray gives all children who appear in her court a bear and book. Something small but something she believes to ease what can be the worst day of their young lives. The dichotomy of Gray’s soft touch does not overshadow her power as one of four judges on the child protection docket of  Louisiana. Her work continues to reduce the numbers in Orleans Parish’s foster care to numbers unmatched anywhere in the country.

The Washington Post reports,

Between 2011 and 2017, the number of children in foster care here fell by 89 percent compared with an 8 percent increase nationally. New Orleans children who do enter the system don’t stay long. Seventy percent are discharged within a month; nationally, it’s only 5 percent.

Gray has effectively all but eliminated foster care except in extreme situations, quickly returning children flagged by social workers to their families or other relatives.

A Refreshing Approach to Foster Care

Gray comments on her upbringing in the Post.

We shouldn’t be taking kids away from their parents because they don’t have food or a refrigerator,” she said in explaining her philosophy. “I grew up in a poor family in South Carolina, and we didn’t have a lot. But what I had was people who cared about me.

A private study conducted by Casey Family Programs in Seattle uncovered numbers so low that it left the child welfare community in shock. Gray’s tough approach to foster care emulates a national movement for reform as seen with the passing of the Family First Prevention Services Act.

Reform Through Family First Prevention Services Act

Passed in 2018 the Family First Prevention Services Act allows states to reallocate fundings for foster care to preventative services. The rationale behind the act is to keep more families together through preventative treatments such as mental health care, substance abuse treatment, and parenting skills training. Gray tells the Post.

Foster care is put up as this thing that is going to save kids, but kids die in foster care, kids get sick in foster care,” she said. “So we ought to be trying to figure out how to use that as little as possible. People have a right to raise their children.

Is this a Nation Model?

Gray holds her seat for one more year before mandatory retirement at age 70. While she does not have a comment on whether her approach to foster care is the best model nationally. She did comment needing more officials who are not afraid of negative publicity or losing elections. The Post quotes Gray in saying,

You have to have courage, she said.  I don’t advocate being reckless, but I think there are judges who do things just to be safe, for themselves and the families. To me, that’s not the standard.

For more resources for foster youth and their families visit our website here.

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