Children in the courtroom: How Virginia judges are giving kids a voice

Giving children a voice in the courtroom: that’s what judges are doing in Roanoke, Virginia.

Oftentimes, in courtrooms across the country, decisions are made without listening to what the kids want even though those decisions drastically affect them.

But judges have found a way to ensure kids are being heard before life-changing decisions are made for their families. One of the ways they’re doing it is with a goldfish in the courtroom. We’ll get to that a little later.

What are the challenges in the courtroom?

“The system is very disempowering to the very children that it serves. Children have a voice, and it may not be always eloquent, and it may not always be what we want to hear, but they certainly have the right to be engaged in a process that relates to them and is all about them,” said Heather Ferguson, a Juvenile and Domestic Relations district court judge in Roanoke City. “I try to imagine being a 13-year-old that has no say, and everybody is talking around me about what is going to happen.”

Ferguson served as an attorney for about 20 years before becoming a judge and saw the shortfalls in the system.

“There was a lot missing. Truly, there was not a lot of engagement with children in the foster care process. Every child who is either before the court for foster care or for a child protective order is assigned a guardian ad litem to represent their interests. But it’s different; that’s speaking through another voice. It’s a very different perspective than hearing from the child,” said Ferguson.

How are judges addressing the challenges?

Ferguson and Judge Frank Rogers are working together to make changes for children. Roanoke City is one of two locations in Virginia piloting programs through the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges to improve the handling of child abuse and neglect cases, reduce the number of children in foster care and improve outcomes for children in care. The other site is in Chesterfield, Virginia.

Children coming to court and attending hearings around their care was new for Rogers.

“As a lawyer, I did not have the best experience with that,” said Rogers. “My sense always was that kids who came to court and wanted to talk with the judge came with an agenda. Thanks to Judge Ferguson and others I’ve come around, I do think it’s important to hear from kids. Not in every case, and certainly not where we’re going to sit them down in court between their two parents and ask them what their preference is. There are other ways to do that. I’ve come 180 degrees on that through this process. I think that’s made me a better judge, and I think it’s probably improved outcomes for my kids.”

How has listening to young voices made an impact?

Alexis Whitt was 13 years old when she first appeared in his courtroom, but underlying issues from home started to surface. Now 18 years old, she returned to court voluntarily and talked about the experience with Rogers.

I came in here with charges. At first, I was mad at him. I was always angry to come into this courtroom. But from his side, I looked like a bad kid. I looked like a kid that wanted to do wrong. Then CPS got involved. I started talking to my probation officer about what was going on at home. He started to see more. I don’t know what he saw in me, but he saw it, and he really gave me a chance.

Alexis Whitt

There was one pivotal moment in court that changed her life for the better.

“He looked at me. ‘Alexis,’ he said, ‘What do you want to do?’” She remembers that question very well, showing us how she put her head down in the courtroom.

“I didn’t care what happened to me at that point. I was like, ‘You know what? Whatever happens, happens. I can’t do anything anymore.’ I fought for so long. And then he gave me that chance. I bawled. It’s like all those years of just being kept quiet. I was too scared to say anything because my mom was always sitting there, and I never wanted to hurt her. I never wanted my mom to feel like she was a bad mom,” said Alexis.

“I don’t see bad kids. I see kids who have had struggles, and you did. But you recognized that and helped me make an informed decision, and you turned it around. That’s what this is all about. Honestly, that’s what keeps me coming back. Every day, this is what I call the happy success stories,” said Rogers. “Too many times we don’t think to ask the child because you’re the one living this. You’re the one having the experience. We ought to get your input before we make a decision. Now, I might not always agree with the child. I might think that what they want is not in their best interest and do something different, but I still want them to have input.”

He said Alexis did have answers for him and was a great advocate for herself, making his decision more concrete.

Judge Frank Rogers is part the team bringing positive change to the courthouse experience for children and their families. (Copyright 2024 by WSLS 10 - All rights reserved.)

How are judges creating a more comfortable environment for children and teens?

Ahead of these interviews, Virginia Today Anchor Jenna Zibton spent several hours in Judge Ferguson’s courtroom, watching how she empowers the voices of our youth in the courtroom on a daily basis. That day, the age range of the children appearing in court ranged from just months old to teenagers. Each child and their guardians were there for different reasons.

“There’s a lot that you can learn. I think a lot of times judges, guardian ad litem say, ‘Well, I don’t need to go look at an infant because they can’t tell me anything.’ The reality is infants tell us a ton. The infant that day, clearly was comfortable with both foster parents, clearly was flourishing in their care. That’s all very telling to me,” said Ferguson, who also sees older babies reach out for their biological parents when they see them.

The judge also watches how toddlers interact with people, even when they may not understand a lot of what is happening during proceedings.

“With the older children, particularly preteen and teenagers, you have the ones that are very engaged and want to tell you everything about themselves. Then you have the ones who really don’t want to say anything and don’t necessarily want to participate. They want to hear, they want to know they want to be empowered, and they want to have a say if they want it,” said Ferguson.

Both judges also have small gifts for the children that come to court. The gesture helps them connect with the kids, no matter their age. There is an entire wall with dozens of donated books for children to take home, too.

“You see their face light up, and they’re totally surprised. Obviously, that is because they didn’t come to court expecting to take something home with them. Some of them really liked to read, and some of them genuinely are excited to have their own book to take home. It’s pretty cool,” said Rogers.

There’s another unique way that judges are helping people feel more at ease. Ferguson has a goldfish in her courtroom. Bruno sits to her right on the judge’s bench and makes a lasting impression on many people.

“That would have never been something I would have even considered,” said Ferguson, who got the fish less than a year ago. “There are some people who are probably naysayers about having a goldfish in the courtroom, but he certainly has been a very well-loved piece of this courtroom. Litigants, clients, attorneys, deputies: everybody is very engaged with Bruno and checks in on him and wants to know how he’s doing. I do hear a lot that the bubbles and the light are very soothing. So, he seems to be doing his job quite well.”

Bruno the goldfish has been in the courthouse for less than a year, but is already making a big splash with everyone who visits Judge Ferguson's courtroom. (Copyright 2024 by WSLS 10 - All rights reserved.)
Judge Heather Ferguson says Bruno the goldfish is a big draw, even for adults who come into her courtroom. (Copyright 2024 by WSLS 10 - All rights reserved.)

She also has small toys to offer children who can take them home. Right now, they can choose between a small stuffed animal or a hot wheel.

For children who cannot come to court for any number of reasons, they can express themselves with letters, drawings or even recording a short video. Those choices eliminate some of the limitations of this program, but not all.

We really have to be respectful of the mental health of some of these children. Oftentimes, we don’t know those mental health issues right off the bat. I will say one of the limitations is really deferring to other people, which sometimes is difficult as a judge. Who’s going to bring the child to court? Who is going to sit in the lobby with them if they need to leave during difficult moments of testimony?

Heather Ferguson, a Juvenile and Domestic Relations district court judge in Roanoke City

Ferguson said coordination can also be a roadblock, and Rogers said there are some other limitations as well.

When asked about additional limitations, Rogers stated: “Probably the biggest and the one that our family time team struggled with the most is the added work for our family service specialists at DSS. They’re already at capacity. I think when you buy into the notion, as most I think at DSS have, that’s going to end in a better result for the child and the family. You work past that or you work through it.”

How does this work and what success has it seen?

They’ve tried to prevent a lot of logistics concerns ahead of time by being proactive, as shown in the outline below:

  • There are worksheets to fill out ahead of time with answers to many of the logistical questions that arise when children come to court. It also provides guidance for children of different ages and when they should and shouldn’t come to court. “Given time constraints, high emotions, possible conflict, and/or re-traumatization shortly after removal, no age bracket will be offered the opportunity to participate in this hearing,” reads the document about preliminary removal hearings. Other guidance included when a mental health clinician should be consulted before a child comes.
  • The judges send a letter to the children inviting them to court and telling them other ways they can communicate.
  • They made a video for children to watch about what to expect when they come to the courthouse. It explains everything from security procedures to the judge’s role during the hearing.

Seeing the outcomes over the last two years since implementing these practices, makes all the hard work worth it. Ferguson said in almost every hearing now there is some form of engagement from the children involved. They are gathering data currently about how many children participate in their hearings and are tracking how it’s working.

“It makes my heart swell. That’s the best way to say it. This is the way it’s supposed to work. This is what we were supposed to be doing all along because I do think we are changing what’s happening in the lives of these children and for the better. I can’t imagine ever going back,” said Ferguson.

The Roanoke City courthouse now has a children's room on the first floor outside the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courtrooms. It's part of an ongoing effort to make the courthouse more inviting for families. (Copyright 2024 by WSLS 10 - All rights reserved.)

There are other key parts of what they are trying to accomplish with better courthouse experiences and improved outcomes for kids and families.

When kids are in foster care, it used to be called “visitation” when they spent time with their biological families, and it often happened at the Department of Social Services. Judge Rogers said the term “visitation” feels like you’re going to see people in jail, and he also wanted to make that time more meaningful. He worked with people at Roanoke DSS to change the name to “family time” and have that time spent out in the community instead when appropriate. They developed a list of places like libraries, parks and restaurants as suggestions for that time together.

With a $15,000 grant from the Roanoke Bar Association and Roanoke Law Foundation, Roanoke City DSS completely renovated and updated the family time and observation rooms at the DSS offices.

“This was long overdue, and the results have been very well received. It is a cleaner, brighter and happier place,” said Rogers. “Thanks to a major commitment by the City, we improved security at entrances, we brightened the waiting area, local youth artists contributed pieces as part of this work, we added a children’s room with an amazing mural, and we created spaces for lawyers to privately confer with clients or witnesses.”

This article is part of “Solutionaries,” our continuing commitment to solutions journalism, highlighting the creative people in communities working to make the world a better place, one solution at a time. Find out what you can do to help at

About the Author

You can see Jenna weekday mornings at the anchor desk on WSLS 10 Today from 5-7 a.m. She also leads our monthly Solutionaries Series, where we highlight the creative thinkers and doers working to make the world a better place.

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