Conference Brings Together Experts on Therapeutic Jurisprudence

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Amy Ronner, JD ’85, opened the 2015 Regional Conference of the Miami-Dade Community Based Care Alliance by quoting Mark Twain. “’Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions,’” she told the audience of over 300. “’Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you too can become great.' All of you here today are truly great because you empower others and help them actualize their ambitions."

The focus of the one-day conference at the Newman Alumni Center at the University of Miami was "Improving Frontline Practice Through Therapeutic Jurisprudence." Child welfare case managers, judges, child protection attorneys, prosecutors, foster parents, and investigators with the Florida Department of Children and Families discussed issues that impact the practice, including best practices in identifying and treating the traumatic symptoms associated with child abuse and neglect cases involving charges of domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental health.

The conference was designed to familiarize attendees with principles of therapeutic jurisprudence, acquainting them with research from the social sciences to effect reforms in dependency court proceedings by using new methodologies to achieve beneficial therapeutic outcomes for parents and children and the professionals involved in the system.  Significant attention was paid to the necessity of guarding against compassion fatigue, burnout, and vicarious trauma among frontline staff.

The theme of therapeutic jurisprudence was particularly appropriate for the setting at UM as the late Bruce J. Winick, who was a professor at the University of Miami School of Law for more than 35 years, co-founded the field which studies the effects of law and the legal system on the behavior and mental health of people.

"Using therapeutic jurisprudence principles to reshape dependency court culture and practice is in keeping with the spirit and ideas of Professor Bruce Winick," said Bernard Perlmutter, professor of Clinical Legal Education and co-director of the Children & Youth Law Clinic, in his keynote address. "Bruce worked on this campus for over four decades and developed the basic concepts of therapeutic jurisprudence at our law school." Perlmutter was a student of Winick's at Miami Law.

Ronner, who worked closely with Winick, is a professor of law at St. Thomas University School of Law. She traced the origins of TJ back to mental health law and outlined the three Vs of TJ: voice, validation, and voluntary participation.

"The therapeutic process begins with individuals experiencing a sense of 'voice' or an opportunity to tell their story to a decision-maker," she said. "A by-product of voice is validation, which occurs when participants in the process feel that they have been genuinely listened to, heard, and taken seriously. Consequently, when litigants emerge from a proceeding with a sense of voice and validation, they tend to be more satisfied and accepting of the outcome. Voice and validation thus foster something essential – the other V – a sense of voluntary participation, which occurs when an individual experiences the proceedings as less coercive."

The conference continued with a plenary session examining trauma in child welfare cases and breakout sessions focusing on new ways to treat families in these cases using motivational interviewing and strength-based approaches to working with families, and techniques from therapeutic jurisprudence to assist youth with psychiatric disorders. The conference concluded with a panel featuring foster children and youth from Florida Youth SHINE (Striving High for Independence aNd Empowerment) program, a youth-run, peer-driven organization that empowers current and former foster youth to become leaders and advocates within their communities.

The Children's Trust, UM Schools of Law and Nursing and Health Studies, El Centro Center of Excellence for Health Disparities Research, Switchboard Miami, The Advocate Program, and DCF Children's Mental Health partnered with the CBC Alliance to present the conference.

The Children & Youth Law Clinic will collaborate with the School of Nursing and Health Studies and the CBC Alliance to draft a report that summarizes the information presented at the conference and the recommendations for dependency court reforms that the conference attendees discussed.

Perlmutter said that at the close of the day's discussions, they would all be filled with "a heightened sense of our purpose and mission in this profession that we have chosen as our life's work."