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COVID Forced Courts Virtual – Should Any Stay That Way?

The pandemic drove Pima County, Ariz.'s Family Drug Court to takes it sessions virtual and over the phone. The changes meant less camaraderie but more convenience, and the ability to reach new demographics.

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Clockwise from top left: Teri Deal of NCSC, case specialist Heather Armstrong, case specialist Brittany Miller, Judge Ken Sanders. Not pictured: lead recovery support specialist Linda Perry.
Courts took child welfare hearings virtual during the pandemic. Now they’re looking back at the benefits and challenges of digital sessions and assessing what role virtual and hybrid hearings should play in the future.

For Arizona’s Pima County Family Drug Court (FDC) program, moving to Microsoft Teams-based hearings not only allowed personnel to continue supporting parents, but also to serve more and different participants than they had pre-pandemic, case and recovery specialists said during a recent conversation convened by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC).

Still, speakers shared the difficulty of creating the same emotional engagement when connecting remotely and about the potential for technology uses to prompt implicit biases.


Pima County’s FDC offers a voluntary program for parents who have lost legal custody of their children due to struggles with alcohol or other drug use. The Department of Child Services requires parents to attend one session, after which they can choose whether to go through an intake interview and enroll. If they do, they’ll attend regular court sessions as they progress through goals that are designed to help them recover and win back custody.

The move digital didn’t just change how the court met — it shifted the entire flow of the day, said Linda Perry, lead recovery support specialist at the Pima County FDC.

“Our format prior to COVID was we had three hearings throughout the day: There was a morning women’s session, an afternoon women’s session and then a session for men in the late afternoon,” Perry said. “Now it’s chunked out to 20-minute blocks scattered throughout the day.”

Allowing participants to connect in from anywhere turned out to remove a lot of burdens from parents who otherwise might need to secure child care and make long treks into court, said Pima County FDC case specialist Heather Armstrong.

“Even [for] a session that lasts less than an hour, they could be on the bus an extra two hours — an hour each way. So that's essentially a half day to come to a short hearing,” Armstrong said.

Given those benefits, she said she’d like to continue offering virtual attendance as a perk for participants who’ve been keeping up well with the program requirements.

The flexibility and brevity of remote sessions also lifted barriers that had stopped people from joining the program. The now-digital FDC saw a surge of enrollment from employed men, whose work schedules often prevent them visiting the court in person, Armstrong said.

There were other surprise successes, too: The percentage of people who make their appointments for intake interviews also rose over pre-pandemic levels, after the court started conducting them by phone, Armstrong said. She said the FDC intends to continue this practice.


At the same time, the new schedules and virtual format has meant weakening the sense of community and camaraderie that comes from being in a room with other participants going through similar journeys, Perry said.

“It's a big difference being on video, when they're getting kudos for a milestone reached,” Perry said. “They do have Judge Sanders, their case specialist and their assigned RSS [recovery support specialist] giving applause, but it’s a different feeling than when you’ve got a roomful of peers behind you also joining in on that.”

Retaining an emotional connection with participants is also important for court staff trying to encourage parents to discuss details of their situations, said Pima County Juvenile Court Judge Ken Sanders, who presides over the FDC program.

“I don’t want it to just be detached voices on an overhead speaker,” Sanders said. “It’s really important to be as engaging as possible with people via Teams or if just on phone or what have you. You have to try even harder … to get them to open up and talk about their successes as well as their struggles.”

There won’t be a one-size-fits-all answer to this, and some participants are more inclined to speak up at remote meetings. A currently unpublished survey that NCSC conducted with 54 parents at an FDC found 56 percent saying that virtual hearings were “less intimidating” than in-person ones, according to research presented by principal court management consultant Teri Deal.

And not all types of hearings are well suited for virtual. Certain sensitive processes — like termination of parental rights — should only be conducted in person, according to many caseworkers and attorneys that NCSC polled across five states. Eighty-three percent of 1,919 caseworker respondents and 66 percent of 111 attorneys held this view, Deal told Government Technology.

Courts trying to find ways to connect well remotely have plenty of practical questions to consider, and Deal said her observations of child welfare hearings have found each court — and even court room — putting its own spin on the practices.

Some courts’ virtual hearings relied on security camera footage that showed the top of the judges’ heads, while others had judges using laptop cameras that recorded their faces, for example. Courts also varied over whether all participants, just the judge or a mix of the two were made visible on camera.

Overall, though, many judges say they prefer having participants be on video, allowing the judges to read facial expressions and contextual clues, Deal said.

The nature and quality of the videos could potentially influence how participants are regarded, Deal warned, and courts must be sensitive to the risk of unconscious biases. Many parents told NCSC that they use smartphones to join hearings, but footage from a mobile device is often shakier than that from the stationary laptops, which court personnel are more likely to be using, for example.

Courts must be sensitive to how unconscious biases might rise if only one attendee joins without video, while everyone else can see each other’s faces.

“Does that cause us to think and feel differently about a person because they’re in one box with their name on it compared to all of us having our cameras on?” Deal said.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a senior staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.