Could a therapeutic jurisprudence themed conference be used in your area of the law or your local community to improve  your legal system?

Guest blogger Professor Bernie Perlmutter talks about how a local community has used the lens of therapeutic jurisprudence to improve their frontline practice…

The Miami-Dade Community Based Care Alliance, a forum for South Florida child welfare agencies and community collaborators dedicated to improving outcomes for children in the state foster care system, held a one-day regional conference in early December 2015 titled Improving Frontline Practice through Therapeutic Jurisprudence.

The conference brought together Miami-Dade County’s frontline child welfare professionals, stakeholders, and foster parents, along with academic collaborators from the University of Miami, to re-envision child welfare practice using principles derived from Therapeutic Jurisprudence (TJ).  The CBC Alliance’s mission focuses on forging improvements in the Miami-Dade County foster care system, by mapping existing practices, encouraging program innovation, and advocating for evidence-based best practices.

Bringing academic researchers to the child welfare frontline at a local level presents opportunities for interdisciplinary academic-community collaborations.  As one of the conference planners and one of the keynote speakers, along with Amy Ronner of St. Thomas Law School, it was a thrill for me to welcome the 300 conference attendees to the University of Miami and introduce them to TJ. The conference location was also fitting as it was held on the campus where Bruce Winick developed TJ over his four-decade academic career.

As UM Nursing and Health Studies Professor Tony Roberson and CBC Alliance Director Chris Giffrow explained to me, the theme of the conference arose after UM researchers conducted focus group surveys of stakeholders, asking them what they wanted to see changed in the children’s court.

The focus groups consisted of the three top professional disciplines at the children’s court: case managers, attorneys, and abuse investigators. The answers that they gave pointed in a singular direction:

  • the case managers wanted to be able to better serve clients, consistent with the ethic of compassion that animates the social work profession, and the reasons they entered this field in the first place;
  • the attorneys almost unanimously wanted to see less of an adversarial system in the courtroom, and more of a focus on rehabilitating rather than punishing families, and allowing clients to speak out and be heard without fear of retribution from the system; and
  • the investigators wanted to see new safety methodologies that are more holistic and big-picture, family-oriented so that they could be equipped with tools for better decision making.

Nursing Professor Tony Roberson, whose colleagues conducted the surveys, and who was very interested in TJ as a way to transform child welfare practice, saw much to be learned from TJ in this context.

What the stakeholders seemed to be saying was that they wanted to see more commitment to acting with an ethic of care, being more oriented toward problem-solving rather than adversarial dispute-resolution, and treating the families that come before the court with more concern and compassion, and with more attention to healing and self-care.

All of these ideas jibe with the TJ law reform agenda. And fittingly, the three substantive areas that the conference addressed—Substance Abuse, Mental Health and Domestic Violence—have been studied extensively by TJ scholars and, as we know, TJ has influenced the creation of problem-solving courts to address these complex, multi-faceted psycho-social problems that affect not just our dependency courts and other mainstream courts, but our legal system writ large.

It was also fitting that this conference happened just a few months after the opening of a beautiful new children’s courthouse in downtown Miami. It was almost as though we have a new wine bottle, and rather than pouring old wine into it, we are asking for new wine, in other words, new ways of investigating, case managing, litigating and judging the cases and the parties who appear in that new courthouse, which some have dubbed “a place of hope.”

David Wexler’s seminal essay New Wine in New Bottles is an appropriate metaphor for the new ideas that we hope will flow through the new building. David sees the principles of “TJ judging” as a kind of “liquid”, and looks at operative legal structures as “bottles.” He examines how reforming law and process using TJ principles is like pouring new wine into new bottles, pondering the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic impact of the legal rules and procedures and the practices and techniques of actors such as lawyers, judges, and other professionals who operate in the legal arena.

Translating this thought-experiment to our conference, our main goal was to encourage participants to think of new ways of using existing rules and procedures to make clients feel as though they are being heard by the tribunal, treated with respect and dignity by the court, their lawyer, and counsel for the state, and that the system is oriented toward holistic, family-centered problem-solving methods, which hear the voices of parents, children, guardians ad litem, and other parties, and validate those voices in the hearings and staffings and other legal events through the course of the case.

So after the keynotes, the conference began with a compelling plenary session focused on trauma, The Trauma Lens: Evaluating and Addressing Trauma in Child Welfare Cases, which helped to frame the nine breakout discussions.

Those interactive sessions were led by skilled, innovative practitioners from local social service agencies and faculty from the University of Miami’s Schools of Law, Nursing and Health Studies, and Education and Human Development. Each session was designed to encourage participants to come up with new approaches to their practices, in and out of the courtroom, informed by TJ’s approach of using the tools of behavioral sciences to improve participants’ psychological functioning and emotional well-being:

  •  Identifying Domestic Violence and Risk for Domestic Violence Homicide;
  • Staying Ahead of Vicarious Trauma, Compassion Fatigue, and Burnout;
  • Motivational Interviewing: The Basics;
  • The Importance of Language: Strength-Based Approaches for Working With Families;
  • Therapeutic Jurisprudence and Psychiatric Mental Health Amongst Youth;
  • Understanding Family Drug Courts;
  • Coordinating Community Responses to Domestic Violence;
  • Demonstrating Therapeutic Jurisprudence: Shaping Decisions for Frontline Staff; and
  • Engaging Mothers: Therapeutic Strategies in Substance Abuse Cases.

At the end of this one-day convening, there was a heightened and palpable sense of our purpose and mission in this profession that we have chosen as our life’s work.

One of the six dependency judges who participated in the conference invited students from the Schools of Law and Nursing to observe his court and to give feedback on how to improve it along TJ lines. And we’re now at work with our CBC and Nursing School collaborators on a report that captures the discussions and recommends new ways of approaching our child welfare court in a problem-solving, holistic and conflict resolution mode, resolving family conflicts more humanely and striving to minimize harm to the litigants and other participants.

This is a good way to pour new wine in the new bottle at the Miami-Dade Children’s Courthouse.

Bernard P. Perlmutter, Esq. Clinical Professor

Roger Schindler Fellow 

Co-Director, Children & Youth Law Clinic 

University of Miami School of Law MIAMI LAW CLINICS 






3 thoughts on “New Wine in New Bottles: Using Therapeutic Jurisprudence to Reinvigorate Child Welfare Practice

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