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“What is unique and historic about this initiative, is that it is the first time in our country’s history that parents’ lawyers and children’s lawyers have come together with a shared vision of child welfare system reform where families are strengthened and children are protected by their families instead of from them. . .”
—Sue Jacobs, Special Counsel, Center for Family Representation
The Family Justice Initiative (FJI) unites professionals from around the country to ensure every child and every parent has high-quality legal representation when child welfare courts make life-changing decisions about their families. Through the FJI’s work, child welfare lawyers, researchers, judges, social workers, policymakers, families impacted by abuse and neglect, and others are reenvisioning how to best protect children, strengthen families, and support communities.
The FJI is a new collaboration led by the ABA Center on Children and the Law, the Children’s Law Center of California (CLC), the Center for Family Representation (CFR), Casey Family Programs (CFP), Chapin Hall and University of South Carolina School of Law. This article explains why the FJI is needed, its work to date and future directions, and how practitioners supporting children and families can get involved.
Why do we need the FJI?
“The why: Family is all that matters – each of us has a fundamental right to parent and be parented by our family who loves us simply because we exist.”
—NACC Member, 2016 NACC Conference
Every day, the U.S. child welfare system removes approximately 269,509 children from their families with the goal of keeping them safe.1 Although laws exist to support reunification, those efforts—even when successful—cannot undo the damage from the initial removal, period of separation, and for some children retraumatization that occurs in foster care. Even though many children ultimately return to their families many families are tragically and permanently destroyed.
Approximately 400,000 children are in foster care and more than half never return to their families.2 Rather than finding safety, these children disproportionately experience homelessness, further victimization, mental health issues, poor educational outcomes and incarceration. In light of the traumatic consequences of family separation, it is shocking that, in a nation of laws, many children and parents have no, or inadequate legal representation when courts decide their futures. Families deserve more —both because the liberty interests at stake are extraordinary, and because research shows quality legal representation helps children and families achieve better long-term outcomes.
Recent studies show children and parents with high-quality legal representation have fewer unnecessary removals and are more likely to: (1) participate in court hearings: (2) engage in meaningful services; (3) have frequent family visitation; (4) minimize time in foster care; (5) achieve permanency sooner; and (6) reunify successfully. These outcomes improve child and family well-being.3
Historically, legal advocates in the child welfare field have focused on the value of representation for children or parents. Lacking is a unified message about the importance of high-quality representation for both parties. That is changing. Over the past several years, children’s and parents’ advocates have joined to develop and refine concepts of high-quality representation that emphasize positive results for families as a whole.
What is the FJI?
“Success will be, that children will not be damaged by the system that was set up to protect them, that families will not be destroyed by the system that was set up to heal them, and that every parent and every child will have high quality legal representation to get them to that success.”
—Leslie Starr Heimov, Children’s Law Center of California
In July 2016, the Children’s Law Center of California, the ABA Center on Children and the Law and Casey Family Programs convened children’s and parents’ counsel, law professors, court administrators and researchers, to talk about unified goals. FJI builds on that convening by establishing several expert work groups that will focus on defining high-quality representation, research and data, and a messaging campaign. This work will help transform the underlying philosophy of the child welfare system from one focused on protecting children from their families to one that empowers families and communities to keep children safe at home. These workgroups will begin their work in spring 2017.
Learning from the Field
The FJI team will gather information about how states/local jurisdictions currently provide parents and children’s attorneys, caseload and pay structures, and promising practices and programs. The team already has some of this information, but will dig deeper to truly understand how children and parents are being represented and how that impacts due process and child welfare outcomes. Building on existing work at each of the partner organizations, and on the contributions of many others in the field, the FJI team will also develop and share ideas about the necessary elements of “high-quality representation” for children and parents that can be incorporated in practice in a real-time manner.4
While relevant data exists, more research and careful analysis is needed to understand and confirm the connection between high-quality representation and family well-being. The research and data workgroup will design a needs assessment to determine where to focus research efforts, what to examine, and how to conduct the research to fill gaps in existing information about the impact of legal representation on families and children. The research will include components about process, outcomes, and costs.
Based on the needs assessment and existing indicators and measures, the research work group will create and share data collection tools for pilots across the country to collect consistent information. Ultimately, the FJI plans to help jurisdictions develop high-quality representation models for children and parents and use the assessment tools to show positive outcomes.
How to Get Involved
“It is only through competent, compassionate and zealous advocacy that the voice of parents and children can be truly heard…and heeded. Consistent and competent advocacy leads to better outcomes for families and children. Improved outcomes and long term stability will decrease the likelihood of incarceration, homelessness, and poverty. It begins with advocacy.”
—NACC Member, NACC Conference 2016
The FJI leadership wants to include parent and children’s attorneys, social workers, and judges as we launch and implement this initiative. There are several ways to get involved:
- Fill out our survey about attorney compensation and workloads in your jurisdiction.
- Share your insights on high-quality representation for children and parents.
- Sign up for a workgroup—defining quality representation, data and research, messaging campaign.
- Advocate for funding for high quality representation pilots in your state. Seek support from judges, your child welfare agency and your state legislature. Let the FJI know if you need assistance.
- Find out if your state has youth and parent advocates working with your clients.
- Engage former parent and youth clients to serve as youth and parent advocates when representing your current clients.
- Share the FJI video with child and family law partners in your community.
- Share FJI’s goal: Every child and every parent needs high-quality legal representation when child welfare courts make life-changing decisions about their families.
To share information or ask questions, contact: Elizabeth Thornton.
Many in the child welfare community recognize that government is not the best family for a child. The child’s parents are often best able to raise the child and children do better when raised by family. Lawyers representing children and parents can work together to ensure the integrity of families. The FJI offers new support for lawyers to provide the highest quality representation possible so children and their families can live safely and thrive.
Leslie Starr Heimov, JD, is the executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California and a lead attorney for the FJI.
Mimi Laver, JD, is director of the National Alliance for Parent Representation at the ABA Center on Children and the Law and a lead attorney for the FJI.
Prudence Beidler Carr, JD, is director of the ABA Center on Children and the Law.
1. U.S. Children’s Bureau, Child Welfare Information Gateway. “2015 Foster Care Statistics.” Numbers and Trends, March 2017.
3. Courtney, M. E. & J.L. Hook. “Evaluation of the Impact of Enhanced Parental Legal Representation on the Timing of Permanency Outcomes for Children in Foster Care.” Children and Youth Services Review 34(7), 2012, 1337-1343; Center for Family Representation website; Oregon Task Force on Dependency Representation. Task Force on Dependency Representation Final Report, July 2016.
4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children’s Bureau. IM-17-02: High Quality Legal Representation for All Parties in Child Welfare Proceedings, January 17, 2017.