Research in child welfare suggests that children do best in their own families and should remain home with their parents whenever possible. When that is not possible, children should be returned to their families or moved to another permanent home as quickly as possible consistent with safety concerns. Experts understand that children experience trauma when they are removed from their families and separation from family should be a last resort after effective attempts at strengthening the family have not been successful. Too often, due to the structure of child welfare systems and processes, families are unnecessarily separated and for too long. Adding to the human costs associated with long stays in foster care is the financial burden on states and localities of keeping children in placement. Whether in the context of litigation or on their own initiative, states have invested large sums in new strategies intended to re-tool child welfare agencies to achieve safety, permanency and well being for children, with varying results.
Less attention has been paid to child welfare court interventions, the twin system to the public child welfare agency, even though all families with children in placement pass through family court. Legal practitioners representing parents have for decades experienced that effective representation plays a critical role in how families succeed in their journey through the child welfare system. Quality legal representation helps families (1) access necessary services to avoid child placement, (2) advocate for appropriate services required to reunify such as domestic violence counseling and support and regular parent-child visits, and (3) have a voice in court and other important forums where decisions are being made about the future of their family structure. Unfortunately, legal representation for parents is underfunded and far too often fails to consistently provide parents with skilled counsel, resulting in the frequent erosion of family bonds and the unnecessary permanent termination of parental rights.
A few model programs have emerged in the past decade that provide quality legal representation to parents in or at risk of foster care placement. These programs operate as multidisciplinary teams that include:
- An attorney who serves as legal counsel in court proceedings and strategizes with the parent about legal options;
- A social worker who accesses services for the family and helps parents identify their strengths and needs; and
- A parent advocate who typically has had personal experience with the foster care system, listens without judgment, and provides practical insight and guidance to the parent and assists in communication with family, social service providers, schools and other partners.
Some of these programs have preliminary data demonstrating improved outcomes for children and families and the potential for substantial savings of government funds.
Two of the parent representation programs that have documented improved outcomes for families are independent nonprofits: New York’s Center for Family Representation (CFR) and the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy (CFA). CFR represents 80 percent of the parents involved in child welfare proceedings in Manhattan, and approximately 50 percent of the parents in dependency cases in Queens. Data from 2007 shows that more than 50 percent of the children of CFR clients avoided foster care placement altogether. In addition, for those children who entered care, the average length of stay was 4.5 months compared to a statewide average of almost two and a half years. CFR’s re-entry rate (children who return to the foster care system) is approximately 1-3 percent, comparing favorably to New York State’s 15 percent rate of re-entry. Over a third of CFR’s cases were dismissed in 2007, three times as many cases as were dismissed in Manhattan prior to CFR’s grant to become the primary institutional provider for parents in Manhattan. The cost savings are exponential: for CFR to represent one family costs approximately $6,000, almost one fifth less than the $29,000 it costs for one child to live with a foster family for one year. On the court side, there are far fewer continuances, and judges in Manhattan have said that because CFR attorneys are better prepared and can be relied upon to propose feasible solutions to the court, court orders are better tailored to meet the needs of families.
The Detroit Center for Family Advocacy serves residents of the Osborn neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan, a neighborhood in which 84 percent of the population is African American and a quarter of the families live in poverty. With a team consisting of a lawyer, social worker and parent advocate, CFA advocates for families so that they can provide for their children without the need for foster care intervention. Since 2009, CFA served approximately 50 families who were being investigated for child abuse and neglect. All 50 cases (involving 112 children) were closed with children residing with a permanent family outside of the child welfare system.
Washington’s Office of Public Defense (OPD) is a statewide system of parent representation which began as a pilot program in two counties and expanded to two-thirds of the state’s counties. A 2010 program case audit, one of several audits of OPD, found a 39 percent increase in the rate of reunification. The leader of that study, Mark Courtney, wrote “these findings are striking; precious few interventions have been shown to have any positive impact on the lives of children in foster care, let alone impacts of this magnitude.” A more recent evaluation examined the program’s permanency data for over 12,000 children in placement from 2004 to 2007. These data show an 11 percent increase in the rate of reunification, 104 percent increase in adoptions and an 83 percent increase in guardianships in counties with the OPD program as compared to counties without OPD. Most of the children (68%) in the evaluation who attained permanency reunified with their parents. When researchers converted these findings to timeframes they found that adoptions and guardianships in counties with OPD occurred a full year earlier than in counties without OPD.
The programs described above offer preliminary evidence that providing parents with quality legal representation reduces entry into foster care, time spent in foster care, and leads to quicker permanency for children, whether through reunification or other permanency outcomes. Moreover, the potential for cost savings to states, counties and the federal government is significant. However, funding for these model programs is inconsistent and often unpredictable. Building on bipartisan efforts to improve outcomes for vulnerable children and families, Representative Gwen Moore introduced the Enhancing the Quality of Parental Legal Representation Act (H.R. 1096) on March 12, 2013. This Act would provide a modest new source of financial support for parents involved in child welfare proceedings, and increase the probability that plans and decisions about what is best for children will be made with the full participation of vulnerable families.
For state policymakers – considering ways to support children and their families in contact with the child welfare system is an important way to ensure that families have what they need to provide safe, stable and supportive homes and that children have what they need to thrive. For results-based policy strategies that support families visit policyforresults.