October 07, 2013 Articles

Improving Representation for Parents in the Child-Welfare System

By Mimi Laver

Providing attorneys who represent parents in the child-welfare system with practical tools, as well as a supportive, lively atmosphere, were some of the goals of the Third National Parent Attorneys Conference held on July 10–11, 2013, in Washington, D.C. By all accounts, the conference delivered on these and many other important themes. Two hundred and seventy parents' attorneys from around the country gathered to learn together, share their challenges, and get reenergized to return home to provide high-quality representation to their clients.

Leading the Way to Quality Representation for Parents
Since 2007, there has been increasing focus on the connection between high-quality representation for parents and improved outcomes for children and families. These improved outcomes include children reuniting with their parents more quickly and safely, children reaching other permanency options sooner, children and families having more frequent and better family time/visitation while the children are in care, and an increase in the use of kin for placement and support for families. Research demonstrates that children have better long-term outcomes when they are raised within their families. More and more data are showing that when parents are represented by attorneys who have reasonable caseloads, are paid a reasonable amount of money for their services, and, most important, spend time with their clients in between court hearings, they have better experiences with the child-welfare system, and this means their children also do better. There is also a growing consensus that when parents are represented by a multidisciplinary legal team consisting of an attorney, social worker, and parent partner (a parent who successfully reunified with his or her child and has received training to be a professional in the system), the parent and family have the best results.

The ABA Center on Children and the Law's National Project to Improve Representation for Parents Involved in the Child Welfare System, in partnership with Casey Family Programs and with the help of a national steering committee, is leading the movement to spread this improved model for representation across the country. The project is assisting states in drafting and implementing standards of practice for parents' attorneys based on the ABA Standards of Practice for Attorneys Representing Parents in Abuse and Neglect Cases, working with state-level child-welfare and court leaders to initiate representation for parents in states like Mississippi, where parents don't have assigned attorneys, and working to improve representation in other states by providing local training programs to parent lawyers and connecting over 750 parents' attorneys across the country through a moderated listserv. The three biannual conferences have been a central part of this movement.

A Packed Conference Agenda
The 2013 conference agenda was full with a combination of plenary talks, workshops, and small discussion groups during which participants had the opportunity to have conversations about substantive topics, including talking with clients about difficult issues, appellate issues, legislation and systemic advocacy, working with parents with disabilities and substance abuse, attorney evaluations, and ethical obligations. The workshops were often skills based and provided participants with concrete tools about, for example, examining experts in court, identifying and presenting alternative non-abuse explanations for injuries, using clients' stories to bolster a case, using constitutional arguments in child-welfare cases, understanding drug tests, and negotiating the housing system to find resources for clients. Workshops also focused on sharing information about model parent representation programs and how to replicate them in new jurisdictions.

The energy level and camaraderie throughout the conference were extremely high but were especially felt during the three plenary discussions. At the opening plenary, Professor Martin Guggenheim from New York University Law School spoke about how far the parent attorney movement has come since the first conference four years earlier. He shared a new film in which a number of parents spoke about their experiences with the child-welfare and court systems. It was very moving and set the tone for a conference in which practitioners were asked to think about ways they could go back to their homes and do their best for each and every client.

Following Professor Guggenheim, Dr. Carl Hart gave a talk entitled Myths About Drug Use that Every Parent's Attorney Should Know. As a researcher who studies substance use and abuse, Dr. Hart urged those assembled to question allegations of substance abuse that their clients have. Hart spoke about the impact of race and poverty on the question of substance use and reminded participants that people always have used, and always will use, drugs, but that does not necessarily mean that these individuals are unable to parent their children safely. It is the parent attorney's job to question and find out if the parent's use of drugs is hindering his or her  ability to parent.

Empowering Lawyers to Make Positive Change for Parents
Over lunch on the second day of the conference, Judge William A Thorne Jr., a Pomo/Coast Miwok Indian from northern California who is enrolled at the Confederated Tribes of the Graton Rancheria and a judge on the Utah Court of Appeals, spoke about best practices for representing Native families and all families. Judge Thorne told the audience that when he first became a judge nearly 34 years ago, he trusted the system. He signed termination of parental rights orders believing that the child-welfare agency did everything possible for the child and family and this decision would be best for the children. However, he shared that as he became a more experienced judge, he regretted those early orders. He learned that nearly every child develops best when he or she is raised by family. Judge Thorne put this philosophy into context for the audience by describing the long history of Indian children being separated from their parents, families, and communities, and the damage this did to those children. Judge Thorne called on attorneys representing parents in child-welfare cases to be a voice for keeping families, Indian and non-Indian, together:

All children deserve the chance to be home. That means you're going to have to help educate people because the vast majority of state juvenile judges have no background in child development. They have the same prejudices, the same biases that people off the street do. . . . You're going to have to take the role of educating the players, or reminding them if they've already been educated, about why these children need their families and why foster care is not a just-in-case option.

Judge Thorne urged looking for solutions before children are taken from their homes and efforts to help parents keep their kids. "Don't be afraid to think outside of the box to find solutions for parents," he said.

The conference ended on a high note with a plenary session entitled Transforming Injustice into Systemic Change. The panel consisted of Joanne Moore, the director of the Office of Parental Defense in Washington State; Rep. Roger Freeman, a Washington legislator and parent attorney; Professor Vivek Sankaran, the director of the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy; and Professor Claire Zimmerman, professor of architecture and art history at the University of Michigan and the mother of a child who was removed by the child-welfare system following an inadvertent act by his father (known as the Mike's Hard Lemonade Case). Each of the speakers talked about actions they have taken in both their professional and personal lives to make important systemic change. For instance, Professor Zimmerman shared her story of losing her son after her husband gave him alcoholic lemonade at a baseball game, without realizing the drink contained alcohol. She told the story about how after her son was returned, she, her husband, and son worked with child-welfare professionals from the University of Michigan to change child-protection law. Following her testimony and that of her young son, the Michigan legislature passed a law requiring more stringent investigations before children are removed.

Representative Freeman told the audience about his journey from being a longtime parent attorney to sitting in the Washington legislature while battling cancer. He talked about how his illness changed his perspective about time. He now tries to make the most of every opportunity, including using his knowledge about his clients, to help make good and fair laws. Rep. Freeman also used a football analogy and asked each of the participants to be part of the NFC, to be Navigators for Change.

Following the panel, audience members were welcomed to the podium to share their stories about actions they have taken that led to systemic change in their communities. One attorney from Philadelphia talked about focusing her energy on working with the Department of Human Services to change policy, and eventually state law, affecting incarcerated parents. A young attorney from Tennessee shared her efforts to block state legislation that would be harmful to poor families—and she was successful. Another attorney from Chicago talked about building on the energy from the Second National Parent Attorneys Conference and forming an Illinois group of parents' attorneys who have been working to support each other through communication and training. It was very exciting to leave the conference with everyone feeling that their efforts could truly make a difference for children and families.

Honoring an Inspirational Colleague
During the 2013 conference, the National Steering Committee started what it hopes will become a tradition at each conference, an award given as a "thank-you honor." This year the Steering Committee presented Professor Guggenheim with the "thank-you honor" for his years of steadfast representation of families and for being the inspiration behind the Parent Attorney Project. The honor read:

Thank you for being a champion of justice for those who need your voice, your vision, and your courage to stand up publicly for them. Thank you for being an inspiration for your peers in helping us reimagine what is possible and necessary to do on behalf of families across the country.

Research shows that children have the best outcomes when they are raised within their families and communities. The National Project to Improve Parent Representation is about "reimagining what is possible and necessary to do on behalf of families across the country," and then taking action for those families.

To learn more about the National Project to Improve Representation for Parents Involved in the Child Welfare System, or to join the national listserv, visit the project's webpage or email Mimi Laver.

Keywords: litigation, children's rights, parent attorney, parent representation, National Project to Improve Representation for Parents Involved in the Child Welfare System

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Mimi Laver – October 7, 2013