Below is the abstract for “A Quiet Revolution: How Judicial Discipline Essentially Eliminated Foster Care and Nearly Went Unnoticed,” available from The Columbia Journal of Race and Law or for download on SSRN.

This Piece proposes a rather unremarkable concept: that juvenile court judges can safely reduce the number of children entering foster care by faithfully and rigorously applying the law. What is remarkable, however, is that judges often fail to perform this core function when a state child welfare agency separates a child from their family. Despite evidence that removal decisions are not carefully scrutinized by courts, the child welfare community continues to de-emphasize the role of the judge as an impartial gatekeeper—as the law requires—and instead encourages a different sort of jurist: one with distracting leadership responsibilities on and off the bench; one with responsibility to oversee individual cases but also advocate for broad systemic reform; one who is actively involved with families, making clinical decisions regarding their personal affairs.

In this Piece, we invite judges to explore whether such extraneous responsibilities advance justice for families, or instead create an inviting space for “omnipotent moral busybodies” to emerge. This Piece makes its argument by focusing on the work of Judge Ernestine Gray, who sat on the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court for nearly forty years. Judge Gray’s disciplined approach to rigorously applying the law during the preadjudication phase of civil child abuse and neglect proceedings transformed New Orleans Parish’s intervention in families into what such intervention is meant to be: a rare, time-limited event. Judge Gray’s disciplined approach led New Orleans to become the first major city in the United States to essentially eliminate foster care. The Piece concludes with a plea for judges to embrace their role as gatekeeper, rigorously and dispassionately enforcing the law to ensure that children enter and remain in foster care only when the state produces evidence that meets the high burden required to justify family separation.


Melissa D. Carter

Emory University School of Law

Melissa D. Carter is the executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center. Her work focuses on the legal rights and interests of children and youth involved with the juvenile court, child welfare, and juvenile justice systems.

Christopher Church

Emory University School of Law

Christopher Church came to Emory in 2023 as a Senior Clinical Fellow. Christopher co-directs the Appeal For Youth Clinic with Stephen Reba, supervising the clinic’s dependency appeals. Christopher is a Senior Director for Casey Family Programs, the nation’s largest private operating foundation focused on safely reducing the need for foster care and Building Communities of Hope.

Vivek S. Sankaran

University of Michigan Law School

Vivek S. Sankaran is a clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School. He advocates for the rights of children and parents involved in child welfare proceedings. His work focuses on improving outcomes for children in foster care by empowering their parents and strengthening decision-making processes in juvenile courts. 


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