Feature

In her keynote speech at the 11th National Conference on Children and the Law, Connecticut Judge Frederica Brenneman called on psychologists and other mental health professionals to help judges make more informed decisions about child placement in abuse and neglect cases.

Brenneman is the mother of Amy Brenneman--the lead actress in the CBS TV series, "Judging Amy"--so conference organizers charged her with analyzing the show's portrayal of courtroom decision-making regarding children. But Brenneman, the family law judge the show's "Amy" is modeled after, chose to instead focus on real-life child-placement challenges.

One such challenge is that courts must predict the risk of future harm to children--at the hands of parents or other relatives--if they stay in their current homes rather than going into foster care.

In her own placement decisions, Brenneman's guiding principle is "do no harm." And in Brenneman's view, the least harmful option is usually allowing children to stay with their biological parents. Moving them to foster care disrupts their lives and family bonds, and should be avoided when possible, she argued.

"Don't treat all kids like removable parts of tinker toys," she said. "They're not."

However, she noted, the stakes are high: In some cases, keeping the children with their parents puts them at risk for significant physical harm, or even death. That's where the courts need extra risk-assessment guidance from psychologists and other mental health professionals, Brenneman said.

--B. MURRAY