So, I [see] you want to be a cosmetologist,” Judge Patricia Martin Bishop said to the teenager sitting before her. “What's that?” the girl asked.
“Someone who fixes your hair, does your nails — things like that,” Bishop replied.
“I can't even do my own hair,” the girl exclaimed. “I want to be a lawyer.”
Bishop, the presiding judge in the Child Protection Division of Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago, looked at the girl's caseworker, who explained why she had changed the girl's answer on a questionnaire about her future. “I changed it to cosmetologist because she's reading at such a low level she'll never be a lawyer.”
But Bishop quickly set the caseworker straight: “I'm not convinced she can't become a lawyer until we help her get through high school and give her the support she needs to get into college and get her through college and get her through law school. Until we've made some concerted effort to help her achieve her dreams, I'm not prepared to channel her to our dreams for her.”
That moment, Bishop says, demonstrated exactly why she created “benchmark hearings” for teenagers.
Since 1997, Illinois has reduced its foster care rolls from 52,000 to fewer than 17,000, thus reducing demands on the court. Bishop was able to relieve Judge Patricia Brown Holmes of her regular caseload, and now they both conduct special hearings for unadopted teens about to leave foster care for independence.
Presiding Judge Patricia Martin Bishop of Chicago created “benchmark” hearings to protect teens' rights — and their dreams. (Cook County Courthouse)
The benchmark hearings are held when the child is 14, 16 and 171/2. The children, as well as their caseworkers, teachers, doctors, coaches and other adults with whom they have important relationships, attend the meetings, which can last up to two hours. “I require the psychiatrist to face me and tell my why this kid's on meds,” the judge explains. “I make the basketball coach come in and tell me how basketball helps or hurts this kid.”
Every Illinois foster child attends a juvenile court hearing every six months, but they can be brief, Bishop says. The benchmark meetings tend to be longer because the judges want to get a clear picture of the child's capabilities and needs.
“The idea is to look at kids more holistically,” Bishop explains, “to coordinate with the agencies, to help [the teens] for the present and for their dreams for the future. If there are unresolved issues after a benchmark hearing, I keep it on my benchmark calendar and have follow-up hearings.”
The needs for follow-up can vary widely. “A girl came to one of my benchmarks wearing sandals and a short skirt in dead of winter,” the judge says. “She had moved from one group home to another, and her allowance hadn't kept up with her so she couldn't buy the things she needed. I kept the case on my benchmark hearing calendar until we were able to resolve the allowance problem.”
At another hearing, Bishop discovered that a boy had maintained a relationship with his mother, whose parental rights had been terminated years before — a not uncommon occurrence. “His mother had continued drugging,” Bishop says. “My position was, if he's maintained this relationship it's incumbent upon us to make it work as best we can. We put the mother back into [drug-treatment] services. She got clean. We sent this kid back home before he turned 18.”
Adolescents need relationships that will help them make the transition to adulthood when they leave foster care, Bishop explains. Sometimes the relationship can be as unlikely as with a drug-addicted mother who had lost her parental rights. Sometimes it can continue to be the child welfare system.
Bishop is authorized to keep a foster child within the jurisdiction of the Department of Children and Family Services until age 21. And, using private donations, the department can even provide higher-education assistance until age 23.
Bishop doesn't have empirical data to establish the value of benchmark hearings, but she has heard encouraging anecdotes. “Lawyers who didn't want to do this now are requesting that I extend this down to age 12,” she says. “Kids come and say, 'I want Judge Holmes to have my case, or Judge Bishop to have my case.'
“The state is such a poor parent. We [judges] can look a child in the eye and talk about what he or she hopes to do in the future. They feel as if they're heard. They feel as if they've gotten attention. They feel loved.”