Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
My name Aurora Martinez Jones. I am an elected Court Judge of the 126th District Court. I manage all the Child Protective Services cases in Travis County. I have the support of an Associate Judge as well. We follow a One Family, One Judge model. I have been in this role since January 1, 2021. Prior to this role, I served as the Associate Judge from 2015 to 2020.
I grew up in a suburb of Houston called LaPorte. I always had a passion to help people that do not normally have their voices heard. My father is from Mexico and my mother is from Jamaica. I grew up in the role of a first generation American kid helping my parents navigate systems and saw first hand how difficult it can be for people to advocate for themselves.
I went to The University of Texas at Austin when I was 17 years old to start college, so I’ve lived in Travis County my entire adult life. I went to law school at The University of Texas School of Law as well. I was a student attorney and got to appear in court because I was a part of the Children’s Rights Clinic and Juvenile Defense Clinic, working with the Travis County Public Defender’s Office. From these experiences, I really grew a passion for helping kids through difficult legal situations.Drawing on what I knew from helping my parents as a kid and working with kids in Court, I knew that children often do not get a voice but their voices are essential and should be uplifted.
Tell me more about the One Family, One Judge model.
The One Family, One Judge model is how we handle all child welfare cases in Travis County. This model is really important for consistency because each case and family is unique. It is helpful when you have a person of authority who is able to learn and understand a family to make decisions that are the most beneficial to them, and in the best interest of the children. Usually, the kids and parents have suffered some kind of trauma and there are complex reasons that these families find themselves in the child welfare system. Understanding that is important to make good decisions as a Judge.
Travis County functions on a central docket system so that cases are heard as efficiently as possible. However, by local agreement, our District Judges have agreed for my Court to be responsible for the management and administration of all our child welfare cases which allows me to refine my expertise specific to child welfare cases and hone my knowledge of the issues that most commonly affect families in Travis County. It’s efficient, but also allows me to work with families on my docket for a year or more.
What do you want people who are not involved in child welfare to know?
I was greatly impacted by a report from Texans Care for Children in 2019. It showed me how dire the situation is for pregnant and parenting foster youth. Having represented kids as an attorney previously and being in charge of the best interest of kids as a Judge, I think it is so important to serve our foster youth in all areas especially as it relates to caring for their bodies, sexual reproductive health, and healthy relationships. I believe, in Texas, we still are lacking opportunity for more robust prevention efforts. Particularly for foster youth, knowing there is concerning data related to negative permanency outcomes for kids in care, there should be a focused effort for educating and providing resources to foster youth.
Unless we work with foster youth and their families more effectively, I see the cycle continue where I may not only be a Judge for a mother and her child, but may be the Judge for that child’s child as well. There needs to be a break in the cycle and this need is urgent. If we have kids in care, actively continuing the cycle, then we are not doing justice to that child, their child, or the entire family.
We have to actively make every effort possible so that a child in care does not get separated from their own child. It is often difficult to secure safe and appropriate placements for pregnant and parenting foster youth because we do not have many placements that will take a parenting youth in care. These youth in care do not always automatically get offered parenting classes or a reliable person for support that they need to help them as they journey into a new role of parenting.
When I begin to think deeper about my role as a Judge on child welfare cases, I see myself and all our advocates as parent figures. In that regard, we are doing youth in care a disservice if we are not preparing them for parenting their own child, when this situation does occur. It is so much harder for a parenting youth in care to complete their education and get stability. I do not want to see kids age out of care and into homelessness, especially if they have their own children. We set youth in care up for failure unless we are actively acting to support them.
What is one thing you think our community can do to improve outcomes of youth in care?
My court is a Model Court which means that we pursue innovative policies and practices to better serve children and families then train other courts about our processes if they are successful. For 2021, I formed a committee related to supporting pregnant and parenting foster youth so that we can bring together advocates who work in the system to focus on this issue. The committee discusses changing practices and policies within the court system as well as identifying and collaborating with community resources. We also hope to make sure our foster youth have robust sexual health education and healthy relationships therapeutic support. We have to consider that many of our youth have experienced sexual trauma and we are committed to ensuring we take a trauma informed approach. I think the community can help us in making sure there is appropriate programming available, with a therapeutic lens.
Is there a memory that sticks out to you from working on these cases?
I’ve had cases with parenting foster youth who would visit with me and talk about their struggles with parenting. They want to figure out what their life is going to look like when the system leaves them and they age out. It’s very scary to think about. I know that some of the discussions that I have had personally with some of these parenting foster youth are about wishing that they had a parental figure to give them day to day advice. They wish they had someone to call when their kid has a fever to tell them if they should give them medicine at home or take them to the hospital. Our foster youth often don’t have that person they can go to for advice. There is no grandma to call to come watch their kids. They don’t have that person because if they did they most likely wouldn’t have been in care in the first place. I wish our kids in care had that village we talk about, that it takes to raise a child, to help and support them. My hope is for our community to wrap their arms around our foster youth and their children and provide them the kind of support, comfort, and advice that a lot of us enjoy who have not been system involved.
What else would you like people reading this interview to know?
The State of Texas has had an ongoing federal lawsuit about the rights of children in the permanent care of the State. Many of our parenting foster youth are in the permanent care of the State. There is a lot of work to be done to provide foster youth the kind of support and care that they need and are entitled to. The state of Texas has not shown to be very good at doing that. When we can’t rely on the State, we need to rely on the community. Hats off to all the community based organizations and people who work tirelessly to support children in care and are not professionals involved in the system. Those supports, working hand in hand with our child advocates, has been the main way we have been able to actually serve and support children and not further harm them.