Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Quality Legal Representation for Parents as a Change Agent in Child Welfare | Guest Blogger! Martha Raimon

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

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The President’s FY 2014 Budget; New Resource from CSSP

Today President Obama released his Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 Budget, which outlines the administration’s policy agenda and budget request for federal spending in the upcoming year and sets the tone for the national policy agenda moving forward.  The federal budget becomes the guide by which every major spending and revenue decision is made, making it one of the largest policy vehicles for supporting children and families.  While the process this year has been a bit unorthodox, with the Senate and House releasing their FY14 budget proposals before the White House released their budget request, the stakes for children and families remain incredibly high and the benefit of collaboration is not only clear but, in some cases, will be required.

In CSSP’s new brief “Aligning Resources and Results: How Policymakers and Communities Can Collaborate to Improve Neighborhood Outcomes” we highlight the Building Neighborhood Capacity Program (BNCP), a program under the Administration’s signature Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. The goal of BNCP is to help neighborhoods develop the capacity they need to  enable residents, civic leaders, the public and private sectors and local organizations to identify neighborhood needs and  implement sustainable solutions. In this budget brief, we highlight the progress and efforts taking shape in one BNCP site in Milwaukee, where partnerships between community members and local policymakers are setting the stage for the needs of two neighborhoods to finally be met after years of being overlooked.  The brief outlines the importance of collaboration between policymakers and community members – and serves as a good resource for those working to collaborate around a shared set of results. 

Furthermore, the brief provides more extensive and detailed analysis of the President’s budget requests for programs impacting low-income children and families. Some highlights are below, including core themes of early childhood education and care, place-based programs, and community health and safety.

Early childhood education and care. In keeping with the President’s promise in his 2013 State of the Union address to prioritize early childhood education, his budget establishes a new initiative that would ensure that every four-year-old in the United States is able to attend pre-school. Although the details of how this would be paid for are a bit vague, the budget describes that the initiative “would be financed through mandatory resources and fully paid for elsewhere in the budget”. What is clear is a $750 million discretionary investment in Preschool Development Grants, intended for states that are committed to expanding access to preschool are able to make the critical investments to do so. Furthermore, the budget proposes a new $1.4 billion Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership, provides funding child care to states, child care subsidies and an expansion of voluntary home visiting.

Place-based programs. The President’s budget made some significant additions to the Administration’s place-based initiatives. Promise Neighborhoods and Choice Neighborhoods both received significant increases in their funding requests: $300 million ($240 million over FY13) and $400 million ($280 million over FY13), respectively. In addition, the budget requested $35 million for the Byrne Criminal Justice Initiative. All three of these programs contribute funds to the Building Neighborhood Capacity Program, as highlighted in CSSP’s new brief above.

Community health and safety. Following a year in which particularly violent and tragic events came to the forefront of Americans’ consciousness, the President made concrete his commitment to taking more steps to understand the etiology of violence and ways to prevent it. He requested $10 million within CDC to support research on the causes and prevention of gun violence, requested $332 million for programming related to youth violence prevention, and requested $119 million for the Second Chance Act, which serves to prevent ex-offenders from returning to incarceration.

Because the sequester went into effect last month and federal agencies have already cut back on their programs and services in response, it is of special note that President Obama replaces the sequester in his FY14 budget.  Nevertheless, key programs serving low-income families have taken a hit, so this budget proposal provides an important opportunity to emphasize how - and why - policymakers and community members should work together to maximize resources and ensure that supports for children and families are sustained.

For more on collaborating around results and results-based policy strategies, visit

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Sequester Goes Into Effect: Bad News for Low-Income Families

Recently Congress passed a continuing resolution to fund the government through the remainder of fiscal year 2013, but unfortunately the sequester was not eliminated. Because the sequester contained $1.7 trillion over 10 years in across-the-board cuts to non-defense discretionary programs, all areas impacting children and families will be affected: education, health care, juvenile justice, child welfare and social services just to name a few.

Federal agencies have already implemented the scheduled cuts. Head Start and child care programs have cut their 2013 budgets by about 5 percent by reducing the number of children served, cutting back schedules, and making many other difficult choices. Official reports about sequestration outline a $115 million cut to the Child Care and Development Block (CCDBG) which funds child care subsidies, along with a $400 million reduction for Head Start. Estimates show that this will translate into 30,000 fewer children being served by the child care subsidy program and 70,000 fewer children being served through Head Start.

$1.7 billion in cuts over one year to four programs serving children with disabilities and their families will result in: 1,163,607 children with special health care needs would not receive care; 63,000 adults and children with disabilities and elderly individuals would lose their housing vouchers; 7,400 special education teachers, aids, and other staff serving children with disabilities will be laid off; and 75,000 persons with disabilities would lose vocational rehabilitation services for employment.

In 2012, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) released an analysis that demonstrated the consequences of the sequester for children if the cuts had gone into effect on January 2, 2013 as originally intended. Although the cuts were implemented in March, the numbers of children adversely affected will not be much lower:
  • $270,790,425 less funding available for heating and cooling assistance through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).  Nearly half of the families receiving LIHEAP assistance have at least one child.
  • Title I grants (for low-performing schools) will serve 1.8 million fewer students.
  • 26,949 fewer children will be served by early intervention special education grants.
  • 1,133,981 fewer students will be served by grants for career and technical education.
  • 51,577 fewer students will receive financial aid through the Federal Work Study program.
  • 18,611 fewer youth will be served by the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which provides training services to underemployed adults, and youth who have dropped out of high school and want to go back to school or enter the labor market.
  • 4,350 fewer youth will receive education and training from Job Corps, which targets economically at-risk youth.

In light of the federal government’s final FY2013 budget, states will have important decisions to make regarding their spending for programs and services. Cutting children from the budget now will cost us later. Eliminating early education investments now would increase a child’s chances of going to prison later by up to 39 percent. And paying for that prison will cost us nearly three times more a year than it would have cost to provide him with a quality early learning experience.  Making investments in children, their families and communities, is exactly that – an investment- and not making those investments now will be costly for all of us moving forward.

For policies aimed to balance state budgets while protecting public well-being, see the Policy for Results page on Strategies for Tough Fiscal Times.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month – which provides us with a good opportunity to consider the role that we can all play in promoting the social and emotional well-being of children, families and the communities where they live. 

There are a number of great resources available to support efforts to prevent child abuse.  At CSSP our Protective Factors Framework is the foundation of our Strengthening Families work.  Research suggests that when these protective factors are well established in families the likelihood of child abuse and neglect diminishes.  Research also shows that these protective factors are also promotive – and serve to build family strengths and a family environment that promotes optimum child and youth development.  For policymakers, considering ways to include protective and promotive factors in policies aimed at ensuring the social and emotional well-being of children is one way to work toward sustained efforts at prevention.  Other resources available to support child and family wellbeing include:

  •  The Child Welfare Information Gateway has a number of reports and tools to promote well-being and prevent child abuse.  For policymakers, these resources include a state statutes database and information on state laws aimed at preventing abuse and neglect that address protecting children from domestic violence, reporting and responding to child abuse and neglect and maintaining child abuse and neglect records.   
  • The American Humane Association has a tip sheet that outlines small things you can do year-round to support the well-being of children and families.  
  • Zero to Three’s Policy Center has a number of resources on what it takes to build strong families with information ranging from meeting basic needs, child welfare to paid sick-leave. 

However, while there are great resources to support prevention efforts and promote strong families, our economic and political climate, particularly in light of the recent sequestration, has created circumstances that are less than supportive of these important efforts.  As highlighted by First Focus:

Under sequestration, which took effect on March 1, 2013, federal spending on services for vulnerable children and families took a large cut. This includes:
  • A $124 million cut to child welfare spending, including almost a $7.7 million cut to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment (CAPTA) programs. CAPTA funds community-based child abuse prevention programs which provide a range of services designed to strengthen families. Unfortunately, it continues to be underfunded and these community-based organizations often have to rely on charitable donations. CAPTA needs to be adequately funded in order to effectively protect vulnerable children by supporting parents experiencing job loss and financial stress.
  • A $6.5 million cut to the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. Authorized by the Affordable Care Act, it allows nurses, social workers, or other professionals to meet with at-risk families in their homes, evaluate the families’ circumstances, and connect families with the resources and supports needed to make a real difference in developing healthy-parent child relationships in high-risk families. This program needs continued investment and effective programs should be broadly replicated.
Cuts like these, as well as others to safety net programs like the Child Care Development Block Grant and the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) put additional stress on at-risk families who are already struggling.

With these types of significant cuts happening at the federal level, it is more important than ever for state policymakers to consider their role in supporting children and families.  Whether through incorporating a protective factors framework, taking a look at what innovative strategies other states are considering or make small changes to the way you do business – everyone has a role to play to ensure that all of our children, families and communities thrive.

For policymakers April is a good time to consider the policies in place in their states aimed at supporting social and emotional well-being.  For results-based policy strategies aimed at promoting social and emotional well-being visit our policy for results section on promoting social, emotional and behavioral health or download our corresponding report.  For more resources on ensuring that children grow up in families that are safe, supportive and economically successful click here.