October 19, 2015 Articles

The Growth of the Family Defender Movement

By Richard Cozzola

The ABA Center on Children and the Law Parent Attorney Conference showed just how far the movement for family defenders has come since the first conference in 2009. Model programs have grown in places like New York City, the state of Washington, and Georgia. The depth and breadth of expertise has grown, with many new presenters, and an emphasis on skill development in a preconference trial skills workshop and individual sessions. Speakers from keynoters to individual sessions focused on how to respond to the issues of race and poverty that are recurring challenges for the parents and children who are involved in child welfare cases.

The conference was highlighted by its beginning and ending keynotes. The opening speakers presented a series of challenges. Professor Martin Guggenheim of NYU, William Bell of Casey Family Programs, and Lynda Coates from Communication Across Barriers began the conference. They outlined in stark terms the realities of the child welfare system. Across the country, African American families, and especially poor African American families, are overrepresented in foster care at a rate often two or three times their rate in the general population. With state budgets stretched thinner, parents and children in poverty face increasing obstacles in accessing services they need to help with reunification. These challenges continue despite the federal requirement that states make reasonable efforts to prevent unnecessary entry into the foster care system and make reasonable efforts to ensure reunification. The reality painted by the speakers was that reasonable efforts are often nonexistent.

The lunch plenary, by Molly McGrath Tierney, director of Baltimore City Department of Social Services, responded to the challenge by describing a model that has begun to better serve children and families. The work that her agency has begun to implement in Baltimore has focused on changing from existing institutionalized models that remove children from families to prevention, which provides meaningful help for families and keeps children in their homes. The new model focuses on the individualized needs of children, their families, and communities, and has produced a 69 percent reduction in the number of children in foster care, and 89 percent drop in group home placements, as well as better outcomes for the children themselves. Her challenge was that those in attendance use their creativity to create similar models in communities across the country. Learn more about the work in Baltimore here.

In between these challenges, breakout sessions focused on a variety of topics often echoing themes from the plenaries. A number focused specifically on responding to issues of race and culture, including making reasonable efforts a reality (Professor Stephanie Ledesma, Thurgood Marshall School of Law); identifying the historical and political sources of racial disproportionality in the child welfare system and developing systemic responses (Jessica Marcus and Zainab Akbar, Brooklyn Defender Services, and Michelle Burrell, Neighborhood Defender Services); and effective advocacy under the Indian Child Welfare Act (Honorable Anita Fineday and Sheldon Spotted Elk, Casey Family Programs). Additionally, several smaller guided discussion groups focused at a microlevel on overcoming cultural and racial barriers with clients. Still other sessions highlighted the strong response of the Department of Justice (DOJ) to violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act in child welfare cases and the use of both DOJ and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services civil rights complaint process to respond to issues involving race for clients.

The conference also focused on skill development for attendees. Over 60 attendees were involved in the preconference trial skills training, and other conference sessions focused on the role of parents' counsel in child testimony, conducting expert witness examinations, dealing with complex medical issues, and using interdisciplinary advocacy to assist families.

Finally, the conference closed with a moving discussion and call for action. Mimi Laver, the director of the ABA's Parent Representation Project, led a "fishbowl" interview and discussion with Shayne Rochester and Dusti Standridge. Rochester, a father, talked about how he overcame addiction and a wrongful prison sentence to prevent the termination of his relationship with his child a few days before the court's final ruling. His stories of trying to "learn the law" by repeated reading of the prison's statute books showed his determination to be a strong parent for his children. He ended with a description of his current work as a parent mentor in Washington. Standridge talked about how the personal incidents in her own life and relationships led her to become a parents' attorney. She ended the conference with a quote from Thomas Jefferson:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

As in past years, Mimi Laver's energy, intelligence, good humor, and sense of justice led the conference steering committee and its presenters. The ABA's work in this area has been a model of leadership—a willingness to examine challenging topics, and to use a collaborative approach to develop experts in this important work across the country.

Keywords: litigation, children's rights, family defenders, parent representation, child welfare, foster care, poverty, race, trial skills

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Richard Cozzola – October 19, 2015