Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges Conference Keynote Remarks
July 16, 2013

Thank you (retired) Judge (David) Stucki [STOO-KEY] (NCJFCJ President-Elect) for that introduction and for the invitation to speak at this conference.

It’s gratifying to see another veteran of Ohio’s judiciary stepping into a national leadership role. Congratulations and good luck as you take over the presidency of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. I’ll have more to say on that tonight during the installation banquet.

What brings me here in front of all of you today is to tout the value and the necessity of collecting, tracking, reporting, and – most importantly – using data.

There’s a tendency among those working with juveniles to be reluctant to share data to protect this population.

I understand and can appreciate that viewpoint, but proper security precautions can be put in place to protect the identity of those in the systems you work with.

Gathering this data and sharing it with justice system partners benefits juveniles and families currently in the justice and/or child welfare systems and those coming in the years ahead.

The value of having this data at the disposal of juvenile and family court leaders is unmistakable.

Data can be used to spot trends to improve case management and dispositional outcomes.

Data can help researchers identify best practices and model programs by determining what works and what has failed in order to help judges deal with the myriad of issues affecting our families and youth today.

Data can help chart the progress toward goals that improve the lives of children and families.

Data can be used as a tool to properly allocate and manage limited resources.

Data can be used to hold partnering systems accountable.

The juvenile/family court system is one that must be data driven.

Keeping accurate numbers is a key to measuring success.

Numbers tell you whether you have a problem and then can tell you if you’re making headway in solving that problem.

More importantly, there is an ethical responsibility to attempt to avoid programs, dispositions, or orders that have negative effects.

Looking at available data, researchers in Ohio determined that low- and moderate-risk youth placed into correctional facilities were five times more likely to re-offend than comparable youth placed in community supervision programs.

Finding a way to balance protecting youths and providing quality data is a challenge for all juvenile justice systems. We have the same mountain to climb in Ohio.

In the Buckeye State, we have something called the Ohio Courts Network, which serves as a centralized warehouse of case-related data, enabling courts and justice system partners to share information and to support functions such as criminal history reviews, protection order searches, pre-sentencing investigations, background checks, and pre-custody reviews.

There are nearly 40 million case records in the OCN that represent more than 80 percent of local courts’ case volume searchable online.

But this statewide justice information exchange system could be even better if we could get more of our juvenile courts to participate.

Currently, only 48 percent of the cases in juvenile courts are searchable in the OCN.

Why? Because juvenile/family court judges share some of the same hesitations that many of you do, so we have work to do in convincing judges in our own state why they should participate instead of being on the outside looking in.

In fact, we have a Rule of Juvenile Procedure restricting the use of juvenile court records that may need to be clarified to assure some judges that collecting data is not a prohibited act.

We are making progress. Ohio does have loads of data available in abuse, neglect, and dependency cases.

As a joint project between the Ohio Supreme Court and the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, data on outcomes for each of Ohio’s 88 counties is displayed online via individual counties’ “data dashboards.”

The dashboards are graphic reports that display a broad array of information and show change over time. They also provide visual measures to assist counties to achieve their performance targets.

This project was borne out of two statewide Summits on Children where teams of county-level professionals gathered to seek out ways to improve the safety and well-being of children in Ohio.

While there are ample statistics available on abuse, neglect, and dependency cases, data is sorely lacking when it comes to delinquency cases in Ohio and across the nation.

That’s why Ohio is hoping to partner on an initiative underway in Michigan to improve the quality and access to juvenile justice system data.

Now, if you know anything about football, you know that if Ohio and Michigan can partner on something, anyone can do it.

Michigan used a State Justice Institute planning grant to develop a statewide juvenile justice system data sharing capabilities proposal and compete for a half-million dollar U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance grant.

We hope to at least learn from Michigan’s efforts and possibly collaborate by sharing information between the states to contrast data efforts here and there.

As I stated in my letter of support for the project, “The Supreme Court of Ohio clearly understands the critical need for improved collection and sharing of data to inform policy and practice, measure effectiveness, and ultimately, to improve outcomes for youth and families.”

Barriers remain to reach that goal, but they are coming down in other areas as well.

About a week ago, our state legislature sent a bill to the governor for his signature to speed up records transfers in cases of abuse or neglect when foster kids move to a different foster home and consequently enroll in a new school.

After a complaint is filed, it authorizes juvenile court judges to order the immediate transfer of student records from the old school to the new school.

Because of this closer collaboration between the courts and the schools, students won’t be sitting at home waiting to be registered in a new district when they could be attending school.

There is also an effort underway among the courts, the state Department of Education and ODJFS to strengthen educational successes of children and youth in foster care.

And perhaps not surprisingly a major piece of the collaboration focuses on data sharing.

With access to the unique identifier for every student in Ohio maintained by the Dept. of Ed., ODJFS could match the identifier to students in foster care and track their absences, suspensions, test scores, school moves, and special services.

A roadblock to implementing this data-sharing plan is the fact that state statute prevents ODE from knowing the names of the students that match the identifier. That information is known only to the local schools districts. In addition, a change in state law would be necessary for ODJFS to have access to the identifiers.

By using accurate information about a child’s education history, child welfare workers will be able to make informed placement recommendations to the court.

As I’ve stated before, each one of these initiatives is designed to improve outcomes for youth and families.

After all, that may be the most important message of the day. Isn’t that why you all are in the field you are? To improve outcomes for youth and families?

To do that, you must have data at your disposal. If as judges, we aspire toward this goal there’s no way to advance it without data. Otherwise, we are simply basing decisions on gut reaction.

There are countless ways we can do this without compromising privacy interests.

Far too often, research and evaluation are treated as afterthoughts instead of as priorities. For 87 years, the federal government has sought juvenile court data for the National Juvenile Court Data Archive. For nearly the last 40 years, those efforts, including identifying useful data elements, have been led by the National Council’s research division: the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

The recognition that data is important, however, is not a new concept to those gathered here. At last year’s meeting, this organization’s Board of Trustees adopted key principles related to Project ONE including the following for data collection, analysis, and sharing.

“All children, youth, and families deserve a justice system that collects data for both performance measurement and for achieving operational efficiencies. Court staff should regularly generate aggregate data for monitoring, managing, improving, and reporting court performance.”

In prior years, the National Council has adopted key principles for both improving court practice in juvenile delinquency cases and for permanency planning for children that recognize that courts need information systems that can generate the data necessary to evaluate performance, facilitate information sharing with appropriate agencies, and manage operations.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of the system and to improve its ability to serve children and families, courts should strive to maintain data on every aspect of the process and use that data to identify and achieve system improvements. Doing this demonstrates judicial leadership.

By gaining the buy-in of as many judges in this arena as possible to share data, each of you can learn from each other and steal the great ideas that a judge in another part of the country has used to make progress in this area.

As I challenge the judges of my state to improve their efforts at collecting, tracking, reporting, and using data, I challenge all of you to support this key principle that will improve the lives of children, youth, and families.

Thank you.