Judge Christensen’s State of Judiciary Speech

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(Republished from the Jan 19, 2023 edition of the Fort Madison Daily Democrat)

Tachelle Dowell and Jodi McFadden, sitting side by side, were given a standing ovation during Christensen’s State of the Judiciary address at the joint convention of the 90th assembly.

Christensen spoke about the need for more public defenders.

“As bad as it is for criminal proceedings, many judges report that the contract attorney crisis is even worse in juvenile court,” she said. “In those cases, the lack of attorneys is causing delayed hearings which correlates to delayed determinations on very important issues such as a child’s placement. Maybe it’s time to return a child to her parents? It’ll have to wait. Maybe it’s time to remove a child from a dangerous situation? That, too, may very well have to wait.”

Either way, Christensen said, this crisis has a profound impact on Iowa’s youth and families.

Christensen said she and Health and Human Services (HHS) Director Kelly Garcia held some listening sessions across the state, including in Burlington.

“I walked away from each meeting with a lot of notes and a little bit wiser about what Iowa’s kids need from us,” she said.

Parent Partners

One of the things Christensen took away from those listening sessions is the need for more Parent Partners.

“As a former judge in juvenile court for eight years, I dealt with hundreds and hundreds (perhaps thousands) of parents dealing with substance abuse and/or mental health issues,” she said. “No matter how many cases on my docket, and no matter how many orders I signed requiring parents to participate in treatment, my impact on effectuating change paled in comparison to the words and wisdom of a Parent Partner.”

Parent Partners, Christensen said, were once involved themselves in the child welfare system and faced similar barriers and challenges such as drug addiction or domestic abuse leading to removal of their children.

Christensen met Dowell and McFadden at the Burlington listening session.

“Tachelle is an amazing woman who has a story to tell to anyone who will listen,” she said. “After a 20-year history of substance abuse, she was faced head on with her addiction when HHS removed her children from her care. At that moment, she was highly motivated to turn her life around.”

After Dowell achieved sobriety and the return of her children, Christensen said, she started training to become a Parent Partner.

“And for the past five years, that is exactly what she has done,” she said, “partnered with struggling parents and encouraged them to do the same.”

One of those parents Dowell helped, Christensen said, was McFadden.

“Jodi is another amazing woman with a story to tell. After a 20-year history of substance abuse, she was at risk of court involvement and having her children removed due to her addiction,” Christensen said. “As a Parent Partner, Tachelle visited Jodi in jail. In a prior life, they knew each other. Really well. Jodi knew at that moment, ‘I want what you’ve got.’”

After McFadden achieved sobriety and training, she also became a Parent Partner.

“For nearly two years, she too has partnered with struggling parents and helped guide them down the road to recovery,” she said. “Achieving sobriety and learning to safely parent again is certainly one of the biggest challenges a parent faces when involved in the child welfare system because of substance abuse.”