Decision-Making in Dependency Court: Heuristics, Cognitive Biases, and Accountability
62 Pages Posted: 24 Nov 2013
Date Written: November 22, 2013
On tens of thousands of occasions each year, state court judges wrongly separate children from their families and place them in foster care. And while a child is in foster care, judges are called on to render hundreds of decisions affecting every aspect of the child’s life. This Article uses insights from social psychology research to analyze the environment of dependency court and to recommend changes that will improve decisions. Research indicates that decision makers aware at the time they make a decision that they will be called upon later to explain it may engage in a systematic, deliberate decision-making process. On the other hand, decision makers given an opportunity to justify a decision after making it reflexively may defend the decision, ignoring or distorting information that would undercut its rationale. This Article argues that decisions in dependency court are harmed by a shortage of predecisional accountability and an abundance of post-decisional opportunities to self-defensively bolster decisions previously made. The Article draws from social psychology research to recommend concrete changes to promote effective decisionmaking processes in dependency court. Recommendations include opening dependency courts, expanding appeal rights, dispersing decision making authority from a single judge to multiple judges, and using “case rounds,” drawn from medical school and law school clinical education programs, to provide judges with diverse perspectives on decisions with which they are faced. Finally, I recommend directions for empirical research in the unique environment of dependency court.
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