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Broward County’s HOPE Court Receives Grant to Support Teenage Children in Foster Care Who Are Transitioning to Independent Living

Legal Aid Service of Broward County was recently awarded grant funding from the Florida Bar Foundation to support the HOPE (Helping Older Teens Powerfully Engage) Court pilot program for 12 months. The HOPE Court program was created by Melissa Green, Esq., the Restorative Justice Project Director for Legal Aid Service in Broward County. HOPE Court offers a ray of hope for teenage foster children during their transition into adulthood and independence by using restorative practices. The HOPE Court pilot project initiated in early 2020.

The HOPE Court system is built on the principles of restorative justice and began with research and development in the science of restorative practices. The International Institute for Restorative Practices defines Restorative Practices as an emerging social science that studies how to strengthen relationships between individuals as well as social connections within communities.  Restorative justice and related practices are increasingly being utilized in justice systems, workplaces, communities, and schools. The HOPE Court pilot program is currently helping 12 youth transition, develop good relationships and a restored a sense of community. The HOPE Court youth represent over 600 similarly situated youth in the State of Florida.
The program is designed with the fundamental hypothesis of the International Institute for Restorative Practices in mind, understanding that the transitioning youth are more likely to make positive change in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them. Since the pandemic started in March, restorative legal proceedings and peer groups were conducted via Zoom video conferencing.

“The goal is to build community, relationships, and social capital, and allow youth to be deeply seen, heard, and valued while co-creating their new life,” said Melissa Green, Esq., the Restorative Justice Project Director for Legal Aid Service of Broward County. “Using restorative practices, we are able to give our youth the opportunity to powerfully engage and make positive behavioral choices.”The pilot program consists of youth ages 17-years-old and up. Youth participants will become adults while in foster care, without intact family. Each participant is supported by a team of caring adults, including an independent living advocate, life coach, attorney ad litem, and guardian ad litem.

Rather than using an adversarial approach, the program consists of restorative and interactive court hearings every six weeks and supportive youth circles. Topics of discussion include financial literacy, health education, coping skills, self-esteem, cooking, cleaning and laundry training, job skills and prep, as well as introduction to community resources, and state benefits. Youth individually participate in virtual vision board planning, where they identify their goals and develop steps to achievement with the help of their support team.  If any issues or problems arise during the case, they are addressed via community circles and restorative conferencing.

HOPE Court is presided over by the Honorable Stacey Schulman, Chair of the 17th Judicial Circuit Unified Family-Dependency Court. Community partners include Camelot Community Care, Children’s Services Council of Broward County, ChildNet, FLITE Center, Florida Department of Children and Families, Guardian Ad Litem of Broward County, HANDY, Legal Aid Service of Broward County, Nova Southeastern University, and the Office of the Florida Attorney General. All adult support team members are trained in and receive ongoing education on restorative practices and facilitating supportive circles.