January 14, 2014 Articles

The Detroit Center for Family Advocacy: A Call for Replicating an Effective Model

By Robbin C. Pott

There needs to be a paradigm shift in how we approach families who struggle to properly care for the children in their care. Kids come to the attention of the child-protection system for lots of reasons, and too often their entry into foster care could be avoided if only the caretakers had the resources to address head-on the problems that put their children at risk. Too often the system expends resources to maintain a child outside his or her home rather than to fix the problems that cause the child to be removed in the first place.

The Detroit Center for Family Advocacy (CFA) employs a multidisciplinary model using legal and social work advocacy to empower families to overcome these underlying problems. CFA is a sponsored project of the University of Michigan Law School's Child Advocacy Law Clinic. The center was founded by Professor Vivek Sankaran to address the injustice of children being removed from their families because their caregivers do not have access to help with legal issues affecting the safety and permanency of the children in their care.

Common legal issues are often at the root of a family's troubles, but there are very few legal services available for low-income families. For example, a landlord/tenant dispute may put a child at risk of being removed from his or her family because of allegations of environmental neglect. A parent may need a personal protection order, and often even a divorce, to ensure the safety of his or her children. Outstanding traffic warrants create a threat of jail time for a child's caregiver or are a barrier to an adoption or placement. Sometimes all it takes to keep a child with a birth parent is to establish legal and physical custody for a non-offending parent, or a guardianship is needed to keep a child with the relative with whom the child has lived for years. Right now, in most jurisdictions, when these families come to the attention of the child-protection system, the overwhelming response is to remove or keep the child away for lack of safety and permanence. But out-of-home placements can be avoided when resources are directed to services aimed to treat these root problems.

The Detroit Center for Family Advocacy Model
CFA's multidisciplinary team consists of attorneys, social workers, and a family advocate, and the team is part of the center's staff. An attorney leads the individualized service plan and provides direct legal services, while a social worker assesses the family's social work needs and provides referrals, case management, non-legal advocacy, and emotional support. The family advocate is a parent who has personal experience with the child protection system—she had her children removed when they were young, and she successfully reunified with them. Now she is trained as a parent partner to support and guide parents who are currently involved with the system. The family advocate provides emotional support and helps families understand the importance of the center's services to the clients' ability to keep their children safe and in their families.

CFA handles two types of cases: In our prevention cases, we intervene to prevent a child from being removed from the child's home and to prevent a petition from being filed in juvenile court. In our permanency cases, we aim to remove barriers that impede a foster child achieving permanency. All of the families served by CFA have a legal problem that is putting a child at risk of being removed or lingering in care. In all of our cases, there is an abuse/neglect allegation substantiated by the child-welfare agency, and resolving the legal issue would provide for the child's safety and well-being.

Evaluation Outcomes
CFA opened its doors in July 2009, and in 2012 an independent evaluation, supported by a private donor, analyzed data from the center's first three years. The results are a clear indication that there is a need for these services and that these services do prevent children from entering or lingering in foster care.

During the evaluation period, the center served 110 children with the goal of preventing removal—and not one of those children entered foster care. CFA achieved its legal objectives in 98.2 percent of its prevention cases, and the multidisciplinary approach to addressing problems ensured that these children were able to remain in their homes.

CFA served 128 children with the goal of removing barriers to permanency during this same period. The team achieved its legal objectives in 97 percent of its permanency cases, and at the time of the evaluation, the court had closed 88.4 percent of these cases. In those closed cases, 56 percent achieved permanency through adoption, and 29 percent achieved permanency through reunification with a birth parent. CFA, Promoting Safe and Stable Families (full text of CFA's evaluation report).

The Importance of the Model
CFA is unique because it provides the legal services that do not exist otherwise in the community for these families. But CFA is also unique because it understands that it takes more than just resolving a legal matter to ensure that these families can properly care for their children. We understand that we serve a population that faces a myriad of social and economic challenges, and we know that fixing one or two of our clients' legal problems without also addressing these challenges is not always sufficient to make an intervention stick. We also understand that these families come to us weary of a system that says they are bad caretakers, and they are guarded against additional interference in their lives. This is why CFA's multidisciplinary approach of providing an attorney, a social worker, and a family advocate is key to the model's success.

True Stories
A caretaker was referred to CFA for help arranging a guardianship for her infant granddaughter. The birth mother kept leaving the child with this grandparent and was now in jail. Instead of pursuing termination, the agency wanted the caretaker, with whom the child was bonded, to have custody while the mom worked on her own issues. During CFA's enrollment process, the team discovered that the grandmother needed more than just a guardianship to ensure her ability to properly care for this child. An unresolved landlord/tenant issue caused the home to be a concern for the agency, and given the grandmother's low-income status, she needed financial help with caring for an infant.

The CFA team not only established the guardianship but also successfully worked with the landlord to make the home suitable for the child, and the social worker facilitated the grandmother's applications for food assistance and Medicaid, and made referrals for the furnishings and supplies that babies need. Throughout the case, the family advocate provided emotional support and encouragement to the client to help her understand how important her role is in maintaining her granddaughter's ties to her biological family. CFA's multidisciplinary advocacy prevented a petition from being filed, and foster care placement was avoided. A lawyer alone could not have achieved this result. The entire team was essential to this successful outcome.

The same is true for our permanency work. Take for example a mother that the agency referred to us who was on the cusp of reunifying with her one-year-old son. She had successfully completed her service plan but was told she needed to clear up her warrants before she could reunite with her son and to prevent the removal of her unborn child. CFA's screening process identified this as classic case and accepted it, yet when the team enrolled this mother for services, several other needs surfaced. Not only were the warrants a barrier to getting her son back, but they were also in the way of her securing permanent housing. This mother also had unstable employment due to her lack of education and clearly had mental-health issues from all the stresses in her life. CFA was able to negotiate with the court to dismiss and forgive almost all of this mother's fines and worked out a reasonable plan for her to satisfy the rest of her obligations. This allowed the team to help her into stable housing.

In the meantime, the social worker was able to help this mother complete applications for the benefits she was eligible to receive, helped her into employment and literacy support services, and advocated for her to receive the mental-health treatment she needed. The family advocate kept this client focused on her goal to reunify with her son and provided encouragement to stay on course. This mother was once on the verge of having her rights terminated, but with the right service provisions tailored to her needs, she now has custody of her two young children, she is securely housed and employed, and the agency was able to close this case.

The Detroit CFA would like to see this model replicated in other jurisdictions. These issues are not unique to Detroit, and these services should be part of the array of routine services available to families that come to the attention of the child-protection system in every jurisdiction. It is vital, however, that the model be replicated with fidelity to ensure similar outcomes.

There are five key elements to replicating the CFA model with fidelity.

1. Collaboration with the local agency and courts. Establishing a good relationship with the child-welfare agency and the courts that hear these cases is essential to replicating this model because these will be the main sources of referrals. New offices will rely on the agency and the courts to identify cases that involve legal problems that are directly related to the safety and permanency of the children. This collaboration should begin with educating these partners on the need for these services and providing guidance on how to recognize cases for which the new office can help. After the initial start-up, plan on routinely returning to the agency and courts to refresh this training to ensure these services remain salient and to ensure that turnover in the agency does not result in a decline in referrals.

2. General practice attorneys with experience in child-welfare law. Expect to see a wide range of legal issues come through the door. In its first three years, CFA handled cases involving guardianships, custody, landlord/tenant issues, paternity, domestic violence, public benefits, divorce, traffic and criminal warrants, agency administration disputes, and child-support problems. But all of these cases were couched in the context of child welfare, and it is essential that the lawyers understand that dynamic in addition to the presenting legal issue. Understanding the statutory grounds for removal and the timelines affecting permanency decisions will be a driving force in representing clients in these collateral matters with the aim of providing for the child's safety and well-being.

3. Social workers with experience working with attorneys. Master's level social workers (MSWs) should lead the social work advocacy efforts, and those MSWs ideally should have experience working with attorneys. CFA treats its social worker team members as agents of the center's representation. They are bound by the team's obligations to protect confidentiality and to advocate zealously for the client's needs. Although the team does pursue non-adversarial approaches to problem solving, its advocacy often leads to court. Having an MSW who understands the legal strategy behind a service plan, who can champion the client's cause without jeopardizing the overarching objectives, and who can provide testimony when called upon will greatly assist a new office's ability to serve its clients successfully.

4. A family advocate who has successfully navigated the system. The family advocate will break down barriers between the client and the staff, which can be the linchpin of success in these cases. Clients are referred to CFA by the system that is threatening to take or keep their children. They often think CFA is part of the agency and that we work for the courts. It cannot be overstated how much credibility our family advocate lends to the project's independence and how essential the family advocate is to the families' cooperation with our services. The family advocate attends every intake, during which she shares her own story. As soon as the new client hears the advocate's story, she lets down her guard. There is a sense of trust and hope, and this moment lays the foundation for the team to build a rapport with the client. The family advocate is often called upon to help translate the team's services and goals in a way the client will understand and buy into, and the family advocate continues to provide emotional support and encouragement throughout the case.

5. A laser focus on legal issues that directly affect the caretaker's ability to provide for the child's safety and permanence. A critical part of CFA's screening process is to identify the legal issue that the center can resolve to either prevent removal or expedite an exit from foster care. Part of the challenge in educating the agency and the courts is to emphasize this essential nexus in order for CFA to accept a case. CFA does not accept a case in which the child will still be removed or remain in care even if our services are successful. For example, CFA will not accept a case to clear warrants if the caretaker is not making progress on the other service plan goals, like abstaining from drug use or remaining with a violent partner. It is CFA's mission to reduce the number of kids in foster care, not simply to provide legal services to families involved in the child- welfare system. At the time of case acceptance, it is important to be sure that by removing the presenting legal issue, the child will remain in the home or will be returned. This will ensure that the services will have a direct impact on the child-welfare system and the number of children in it.

CFA's funding is unique and specific to it being situated in Wayne County, Michigan. Through a contract with the county, CFA is able to match every private dollar raised with the Michigan Child Care Fund, a source of funding for prevention and out-of-home services to counties in the state. Other jurisdictions interested in replicating CFA's service model have a variety of funding sources to explore, including local and national foundations, private donors, state and county budgets, federal Title IV-B and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds, and Title IV-E waivers.

Technical Assistance
The Detroit Center for Family Advocacy is interested in providing technical assistance to new offices. CFA is currently creating a replication manual, which includes process maps, example job postings, sample screening, intake and closing forms, and other resources CFA created as it designed this service model. For more information, please contact Robbin Pott at the CFA.

Keywords: litigation, children's rights, Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, family advocate, foster care, child-protection system, permanency

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Robbin C. Pott – January 14, 2014