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January 31, 2013 Articles

Defending Fathers' Rights

By Howard Davidson

Both the federal Child and Family Services Reviewsover many years, and the 2006 report from the Urban Institute, What About the Dads?, made it clear that in the past, there had been very little meaningful interaction between fathers and the child-welfare system. And, from our own experiences at the ABA Center on Children and the Law, we have long known that court-appointed legal representation of fathers too often was sub-par. To help remedy this, the Children's Bureau funded a multimillion-dollar partnership of the American Humane Association, the ABA Center on Children and the Law, and the National Fatherhood Initiative that created a five-year quality improvement center on non-resident fathers involved with the child-welfare system (i.e., non-custodial fathers/those who did not live in the home where their children were abused or neglected). This federal project was principally designed to gain more knowledge on engaging non-resident fathers in child-welfare cases.

The Quality Improvement Center on Non-Resident Fathers (QIC-NRF) goals over five years were:

  • To promote and support a research-based and outcome-focused approach to inform best practices related to engaging non-resident fathers and the paternal family (i.e., paternal kin) in the public child-welfare system.
  • To promote and support a research-based and outcome-focused approach to determine the impact of father involvement on child safety, permanency, and well-being outcomes.
  • To facilitate a collaborative information-sharing and problem-solving national network of professionals.

The center's team on this project—Lisa Pilnik, Jessica Kendall, and myself—were able over the five years to develop a wide range of materials for lawyers, judges, CASA, and especially fathers themselves, who need to better understand how to effectively navigate the child-welfare agency and court system.

Here's a toolkit we created during the grant period of 2007–2011 that can be downloaded for free and includes:

  • Three judicial bench cards on child-protection court hearings and case planning, understanding male help-seeking and learning styles, and identifying and locating noncustodial fathers in child-protection cases
  • A self-assessment guide for presiding/administrative judges to gauge how "friendly" their child-welfare court process is for these non-custodial dads, titled Father Friendly Check Up for Courts
  • A two-page checklist on engaging fathers in the child-protection process called "The Judicial Role" (from the center-produced book, Advocating for Nonresident Fathers in Child Welfare Court Cases)
  • A two-part article in our center's ABA Child Court Works publication entitled "Policy and Practice Reform to Engage Non-Resident Fathers in Child Welfare Proceedings"
  • The first complete book on strategies in representing the non-custodial father in a dependency case, the 188-page Advocating for Nonresident Fathers in Child Welfare Court Cases
  • A series of separate extracts from that book, including "Tips for the First Meeting with Your Non-Resident Father," "The Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children and Representing Non-Resident Fathers," and checklists on "Advocating for the Constitutional Rights of Non-resident Fathers," "Understanding Male Help Seeking Behaviors,"  "Ensuring Quality Out-of-Court Advocacy," "Representing Non-Resident Fathers in Dependency Cases," "Legal Strategies to Address Child Support Obligations," "Addressing Special Advocacy Issues (i.e., substance abuse; mental health; domestic violence)," " Representing Incarcerated Fathers in Child Welfare Cases," and "Addressing Ethical Issues"
  • A comprehensive training (CLE) curriculum on advocating for non-resident fathers in child-welfare cases

Recognizing that we needed to educate those involved in child-welfare court cases other than the fathers' lawyers and the judges, we also created three guides on engaging noncustodial fathers in child-welfare cases for children's attorneys and guardians ad litem, CASA, and attorneys representing child-welfare agencies.

Finally, we wanted to create something directly for the fathers who so desperately need to understand how the child-welfare system works, and how to best cooperate with their attorney through the entire court process. This resulted in our largest printing and dissemination of the project, what we called our Finding Your Way Guides, which we produced in both English and Spanish. There were separate sheets that covered individual topics: Your Rights and Responsibilities, How to Work with Your Lawyer, Your Role in Court, The Court Process, Who Will Be in Court, Common Court Terms, Your Role Outside Court, When You Owe Child Support, and If You Are or Have Been in Prison.

Finally, as additional resources for dads going through the system, we commissioned the article My Kids Are in State Custody—What Do I Do Now? by Angela Greene of the Alaska Public Defender Agency, and our project attorney Jessica Kendall wrote 10 Tips on How to Work with Your Lawyer.

Although we are a center with the name "children" in it, we realize that the process of child protection and state intervention into the lives of families cannot function effectively without every party to the proceeding—the child, the parents, and the government—receiving first-class legal representation. 

Thus, we continue to partner with Casey Family Programs on an ambitious National Project to Improve Representation for Parents Involved in the Child Welfare System, headed by my colleague Mimi Laver. This project aims, over many years, to significantly strengthen the scope and quality of legal representation of parents in the child-welfare system. With the active involvement of some of the finest parent lawyers in the country, we helped form a National Parents Counsel Organization, created a special listserv, and have held two national parent representation conferences. (The third will be in Washington, D.C. on July 10–11, 2013.) To celebrate children being reunited with their mothers, fathers, or both, we created National Reunification Month as a means of giving greater visibility to the most common, positive permanency outcome in child-welfare cases: family reunification.

The project provides on- and off-site training and technical assistance for attorneys, courts and legislators, and has hosted a series of webinars. Its website maintains a list of specialized parent- representation programs, training and support resources, law school parent-representation clinics, and parent-advocacy organizations. It has also completed two comprehensive assessments of how states provide legal representation for parents in child-welfare proceedings, and can conduct similar evaluations in other states. Click here for more information about this work.

Keywords: litigation, children's rights, child-welfare system, father representation, fathers' rights, ABA Center on Children and the Law, non-resident fathers

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Howard Davidson – January 31, 2013