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January 31, 2013 Articles

Measuring a Lawyer's Impact

By Catherine Krebs

It is difficult to measure the effect of children's lawyers in child-welfare cases. While lawyers who work within the system can readily describe the impact of their legal representation on the lives of children, capturing those outcomes through data can be difficult. Because there are so many moving parts in a child-welfare case, how do you effectively prove that a lawyer made a difference in a child's life when a child-welfare case is impacted by the judge, other lawyers, the child's parents, the child's relatives, and the child him or herself? The lawyer might do everything right, but if the judge refuses to schedule the hearing or the child runs from the placement or the kinship caregiver suddenly decides not to care for the child anymore, should that "bad" outcome be attributed to the lawyer? Inversely, if the placement is perfect and the child placed in a timely manner and then adopted, can that "good" outcome be attributable to the work of the lawyer?

Some child-welfare lawyers argue that lawyers should not be focused on collecting data to illustrate the impact of children's lawyers. If the representation of children in child-welfare cases is a constitutional right, as many lawyers in the field believe, then trying to prove that kids need lawyers based on outcome measures will simply undercut that right. Others in the child-welfare field argue that outcomes need to be measured. Both funders and legislatures are increasingly demanding proof through data that lawyers make a difference for children. 

Regardless of these arguments, outcomes are currently being measured. Some children's law centers around the country have been collecting "process" outcomes, that is, things that the lawyer has direct control over like how many times the lawyer visited the child and how many motions were filed.  Databases have been put together to measure these process outcomes. For example, KidsVoice in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, developed the Integrated Data System, which is being used by programs around the country. Additionally, some states are measuring outcomes of legal representation through their Court Improvement Projects. The U.S. Children's Bureau is keeping track of that data and hopes to put it online in the near future.

The Children's Rights Litigation Committee (CRLC) and our national partners are hoping to engage a researcher to examine the data that is already being measured so that we might consider whether there are conclusions around outcomes that can already be drawn. We aim to engage a graduate student, fellow, or graduate-level class to assist in this work. Let us know if you have any contacts who might be interested in participating in this project.

In the meantime, the CRLC has been collecting stories of real cases in which a lawyer had an impact on a child's life. We are editing the stories and will place them on our website where lawyers will be able to pull an individual story to use as needed in legislative advocacy, academic articles, or to share with the public as an example of the impact of legal advocacy. Below are three examples from the stories we have collected.

California Case
An 18-year-old was attending her last year of high school and had begun a college beauty course, funded by the high school. She wanted to remain in her placement with a relative, finish high school, and develop skills for the future before she emancipated from the system. The Department of Human Services wanted to emancipate the teen, believing it was "inappropriate" for her to remain in the system if she could not graduate before her 19th birthday, despite statutory authority extending dependency until age 21. The teen's attorney urged the court to use its authority to maintain the young woman in the system until age 21, to find that it was in her best interests to remain in placement with her relatives, and emphasized that she was engaged in a vocation, as well as education. The court emancipated the young woman and terminated jurisdiction. Her attorney appealed. The appellate court chastised the trial judge's decision and reversed, ordering reinstatement of the dependency. In addition, the county had to provide retroactive foster care funds that were denied during the pendency of the appeal.

Georgia Case
Upon meeting a new client who had just entered foster care, the lawyer learned that the child was devastated that he was forced to change schools against his will. This client was a fifth grader who made A's and bonded with his classmates and his teacher. In response, the lawyer filed a motion to remain in home school, asking that the court, pursuant to federal law, require the department to transport the child to his original home school, instead of the school zoned for his foster home. The motion was successful, and now a DFCS transporter takes the client to his home school daily.

Florida Case
A.G. was born cocaine positive and was placed in foster care at birth. Her biological father passed away from a terminal medical disorder eight months afterwards, and her biological mother's rights were terminated due to case plan noncompliance. Due to her severe medical needs (including cerebral palsy, congenital heart disease, cleft palate, webbed fingers, and originally diagnosed as asymptomatically HIV positive), A.G. was placed in a nursing home receiving only bare-minimum care and not receiving any regular therapies. An attorney was eventually appointed in the case and immediately filed a motion that the nursing home she was placed in be required to transport her to her medical appointments.

While reviewing A.G.'s records, an intern for the child's lawyer noticed that an out-of-state family had expressed interest in adopting A.G., but the state had not explored the placement. Due to the lawyer's legal advocacy A.G. was eventually placed with the family and adopted soon afterwards. She is thriving in her new home and has made huge improvements in her motor and communication skills.

Note: If you would like to send in a story illustrating the impact of a lawyer, please e-mail the author, Catherine Krebs, at [email protected]. The story should be relatively short, with no identifying information except for the state.

Keywords: litigation, children's rights, impact, child-welfare cases, constitutional right, data collection

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Catherine Krebs – January 31, 2013