Video conferencing, such as Zoom, has made our courts and related services much more accessible to Maryland’s residents.
While remote access to the courts, schools, and services, certainly has its disadvantages, it has also eased the significant burden of transportation, which has a significant impact on Maryland’s poor residents.
The logistics involved in appearing in-person in court can be stressful, even overwhelming; significant financial and time demands are common.
For those with access to a vehicle, the drive to and from court may be long and on heavily trafficked roads, which could cause delays. Then one must find and pay for parking and at some point, gas, and then wait in a security line in front of the courthouse.
For those without access to a vehicle, public transportation, which might include multiple transfers and delays, is the alternative, again placing demands on one’s time and finances.
Imagine going through that effort and cost, and then arriving late to discover your hearing has been postponed due to your delay.
With video conferencing, one can get ready for the hearing, turn on a device connected to the internet, and click on a link.
For those who do not have internet service or an appropriate device, support can be provided. For example, currently, the Office of the Public Defender has devices that it allows its clients to use in its office to attend court hearings.
Often, In Child In Need Of Assistance (“CINA”) cases, several services, appointments and meetings are ordered for the child and/or the parents to attend.
The same burdens of transportation apply, with the threat of severe consequences if the parents are not able to attend their appointments.
In one current CINA case, a mother would have required five bus transfers to attend court hearings, resulting in a 90-minute commute, if all the transfers went smoothly.
She also was ordered to attend counseling in person, which requires a 60-minute commute. Finally, she must accompany her daughter has to therapy appointments, which involves a 75-minute commute.
Because of these significant financial and time demands, parents in these situations may find it very difficult to maintain employment, housing, or manage other children in their household.
Fortunately, in this case, each of those requirements included remote options, which on a weekly basis saved that parent nearly five hours, solely in transportation time.
Several studies, including one from January 2022 by Erin Findley and Jandel Crutchfield, found wide disparities in permanency outcomes between families living in areas with reliable and inexpensive transportation and families where transportation was inefficient and costly.
Families that had reliable transportation were much more likely to have positive outcomes in family court, successfully complete their case plans, and had a much shorter average case length.
Another study in North Carolina found a similar disparity between families with wide-ranging remote access to courts and services and families that were required to have in-person services.
It is clear that some services and court hearings need to be in-person to be effective. Video court hearings and remote appointments can be frustrating, and lack the ability to efficiently and adequately address the issues at hand; a full discussion may be limited because only one person can talk at a time and the need for services may not be fully understood.
A prime example is consideration of the needs of less-verbal children, whose needs might be better observed in person rather than online.
Remote access to the courts and various social services, however, can significantly reduce the cost associated with transportation, easing the burdens faced by many of Maryland’s poorer families.
In the event Maryland’s child welfare courts and services return to an in-person model, the ever-increasing costs of transportation and the burdens they impose on Maryland families will have to be addressed.
With more businesses, care providers, and governmental offices reopening their doors to more in-person contact, traffic will intensify, the availability of parking will become scarcer, and wait times for public transportation will increase.
These all affect families involved in the child welfare system.
Although Maryland’s local departments of social services have some resources available for transportation, a return to in-person court hearings and meetings may require an increase in those resources.
In Washington, D.C., lawmakers are proposing legislation which would provide a monthly credit of $100 for every resident to pay for public transport.
Whether such legislation in Maryland would be appropriate or effective is debatable; there may be other solutions more effective for Maryland’s families.
In the meantime, it is important to be cognizant of the consequences of in-person requirements on Maryland’s low-income families.
And now, with an understanding of the capabilities of remote access, maintaining such access to the judicial system and related services, even on a limited basis, could reduce the extra burdens that families face in attending in person.
William Crist is a staff attorney at Maryland Legal Aid.