Prof. Mark Courtney is a professor of social service administration at the University of Chicago, he serves as an advisor to Partners for Our Children, and he is affiliated faculty at the University of Washington School of Social Work. He specializes in child welfare policy and services, welfare reform, and the professionalization of social work. In 2010, Partners for Our Children at the University of Washington conducted a study on the impact of the Parent Representation Project (PRP). The PRP was developed by the Washington State Office of Public Defense and the Washington State Legislature to enhance the quality of defense representation for parents in dependency and termination hearings. Courtney was one of the researchers and evaluators of this project, and he recently spoke to the Right to Counsel Strategy Group organized by the Children's Rights Litigation Committee. This article summarizes his conversation with the group.
The Parent Representation Project
The PRP was created in 2000 as a pilot program in the state of Washington with five goals established to enhance the quality of defense representation in dependency and termination hearings. These goals were intended to reduce the number of continuances requested by attorneys, even if those were continuances due to unavailability; set maximum caseload requirements per full-time attorney to no more than 80 cases; enhance defense attorneys' practice standards, including reasonable time for case preparation and the delivery of adequate client advice; support the use of investigative and expert services in dependency cases; and ensure implementation of indigency screenings of parents, guardians, and legal custodians.
The PRP developed five key components, including the selection criteria for attorneys, training requirements, oversight mechanisms such as client complaint procedures, the use of expert and social work resources, and the periodic evaluation of judicial officers. The PRP was implemented on a staggered basis. Courtney feels that this staggering helped Partners for Our Children researchers assess the PRP's implementation, because they could compare outcomes to counties that had yet to implement the PRP. The issue was whether the presence of the PRP was associated with a change in the timing of children's transitions to permanency through reunification with their family, adoption, or legal guardianship.
The study followed 12,104 children who entered care for the first time in 2004 to 2008 to see whether the children were reunified, adopted, or put into a guardianship. To assess the impact of the PRP, the study compared counties with PRP to counties without PRP. The research accounted for variations of gender, age at entry, race, year of entry, reasons for removal, placement type, number of placements, and number of children entering foster care in each county every year. The research question was "Is the presence of the PRP associated with a change in the timing of children's transitions to permanency through reunification with their family, adoption, or legal guardianship?"
According to Courtney, the PRP is helpful in moving children from the child welfare system to permanent homes. The program cuts the time it takes for children to reach permanency, so reunification occurs one month sooner and adoptions and guardianships occur one year sooner. The rate at which children are adopted is 83 percent higher, and the rate at which children enter guardianships is 102 percent higher. The study also found that there did not appear to be a cause for concern on the quality of parent representation. Courtney also mentioned that the study did not look at the rates of reentry for children back into the dependency system, but there does not seem to be a reason for this to be a problem.
Next Steps and Suggestions
So far, 35 out of 40 counties have implemented the PRP. Partners for Our Children does not lobby for the project, but it has made recommendations to implement the program in all states, because the research shows a favorable outcome for children, parents, and the state. It is important to note that there is no long-term data yet, but a cost-benefit analysis could show that the state can increase savings due to parental representation providing a more efficient reunification timeline and therefore less time in state custody.
Because of these findings, state legislatures should take a look at the PRP if they are interested in promoting family reunification in the juvenile courts. The program is readily available and can be easily replicated in other jurisdictions.
For those interested in initiating studies, Courtney suggests bringing the stakeholders to the table. There should be an open dialogue on how courts function and their impact. This should include judges, attorneys for all parties, and other members of the child welfare system. Once everyone has a stake in the potential of a program, engage researchers to frame the study's question. The most important component at the planning stage is the commitment of the stakeholders, because it is more likely to reduce disagreements, promote collaboration, and produce accurate results that stakeholders will not dispute.
Keywords: litigation, children's rights, Parent Representation Project, parent-child reunification