It’s an early afternoon in September, and five teenagers trickle into the CPS Project Court downtown, their court-appointed attorneys, caseworkers and special advocates trailing behind them. The youths leave the adults in the courtroom, retreating through a restricted-access door, into a room full of toys and books, with a Japanese anime cartoon on TV.
They’re here for Judge Katrina Griffith’s Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) docket, a session for children on the cusp of aging out of care, with the goal of helping them prepare for life on their own. Every few months, each group of PAL teens—in this case, two juniors and three seniors—is required to attend these informal meetings with Griffith, complete with pizza and soda, before attending their formal hearings in her CPS court next door.
The court was established in 2014, as part of an effort to bring down the number of Harris County children in permanent managing conservatorship. Griffith, who’s been at the helm since its inception, hears only cases of kids in long-term care, about 600 of them, whose suits were filed in Harris County. She sets frequent hearings for them and their representatives, checking in on everything from kids’ medications to their behavior in school, and questioning them on their feelings and experiences.
“I think it’s important for kids to be involved in their cases. They’ve told me things that they’ve never told their caseworker,” Griffith says. “We try to hear each case a minimum of every four months, a lot of times every three months. If something’s going on, we’ll see them monthly or weekly.”
Before she took this role, Griffith was an attorney who handled CPS cases and, usually, represented children. So she’s all too familiar with the area’s residential treatment centers, and she knows the system inside and out.
“I had people say to me, ‘When do you think you’ll become a judge?’ And I said, ‘When they have a CPS-only court,’” Griffith says. “So when this came up, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to make a difference on that side.”
The Project Court was one of several large-scale reforms enacted in Harris County when former DFPS commissioner John Specia took the reins of the underfunded and scandal-plagued agency in 2012. At the time, children in the Houston area were spending longer periods in the system than children in other parts of Texas, leading to more of them aging out of care, partly due to the county’s slow-moving legal process.
At Griffith’s court, the focus is on frequent hearings and finding stable, permanent homes for children as quickly as possible, but many of the PAL kids Griffith sees are, at this point, not going to get adopted. So the focus shifts to arming them with what they’ll need when they age out. In today’s meeting, after the pizza, the TV’s muted and Griffith comes in, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. The topic is college applications, something the seniors in particular are focused on.
One girl, an 18-year-old senior with hot-pink hair piled high on top of her head, says she wants to go to A&M and major in psychology. A boy, 18, who plays football for his high school, wants to go to Sam Houston State or Texas Southern and is interested in sociology.
Griffith asks who has started their applications, taken their SATs, and begun their federal-student-loan requests. She reminds them that foster children in Texas are entitled to a tuition waiver that covers their college education, and walks them through the boxes to check and the forms to fill out in order to get their full benefits.
While the tuition waiver is a great opportunity, less than 3 percent of foster youth end up graduating with a four-year college degree. Experts say this is because the jump from sometimes-restrictive foster-care placements to the autonomy of college is sometimes too much for young adults to handle. Where the average 18-year-old can lean on parents for support, former foster kids are left to figure things out for themselves.
For her part, Griffith tries to help the teens tackle the application and financial-aid process. In the back room that day, they each get assignments to complete before the next meeting; seniors are told to finish up their college applications before their next session.
Back in the main court in her robes, Griffith follows up with the teens’ caseworkers to make sure they’re providing support in that process. “We’d never let our own kids apply to college on their own, we shouldn’t expect them to,” she says. “It’s complicated, and these kids are working and going to school. It’s too much.”