January 15, 2019 Article

From the Editor: Is It Lawyers' Job to Change the System?

By Cathy Krebs

Rethinking the child welfare system has become such a prevalent idea that there are blogs, podcast series, and entire non-profits devoted entirely to changing the system. In fact, all of the articles submitted for this winter edition of the Children’s Rights Litigation Committee’s newsletter were (coincidentally) all framed around this concept. Each article took a different approach, but the central focus of all of them was work that individual, front-line lawyers could do to “change the system.” We seem to have reached a broad consensus that and why we need to change our current child welfare system—it does not work for children and families. We are still graduating far too many kids from the system into poor outcomes; it’s estimated that 25 percent of former foster youth experience homelessness within a year and that 25 percent become involved in the criminal justice system within two years of exiting care. Disproportionality is also a significant issue within our system with, for just one example, African American children comprising only 14 percent of the nation’s children and yet representing 23 percent of the national foster care population. Recently a new class action law suit was filed that alleged that foster children in Kansas are moved so often—in one case more than 130 placements in six years—they are effectively rendered “homeless while in state custody.” Indeed U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack recently ruled that children in foster care in the state of Texas “almost uniformly leave state custody more damaged when they entered.”

But can individual, front-line lawyers change the system? Though there are large entities representing children like the Children’s Law Center of California and Legal Aid in New York, the majority of lawyers representing children in dependency cases are either solo practitioners or members of small firms. Is it the job of individual lawyers to change the system? Even if it is, do lawyers have that ability?

Thinking about this question reminded me of a conversation I once had with my then high school-aged daughter. She was quiet on the ride home from school, and I asked her if anything was bothering her. It was close to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday, and her school had talked to the students about how it was their responsibility to change the world. Combined with living in Washington, D.C. where it seems so many people are literally working to do big things and change the world, my daughter felt a little hopeless. “I’m just a kid—just one person. What can I do that is big enough to change the world?” The answer I gave her is, I think, the same answer here. No, one person doesn’t have to do it all, but we must do what we can. And the actions of one individual can make a big difference.

Can one front-line lawyer change the entire system? Perhaps not the entire system, but certainly the actions of one lawyer can change the world for his or her client, literally transforming a child’s future whether because of connections to education or family or perhaps by reversing a decision to remove a child from his or her own home when there was no safety risk. As William Booth, Angela Orkin, James Walsh, and John Walsh note in their article, those individual case actions can lead to systems change, particularly when lawyers begin to pull in the same direction. Lawyers can also call attention to trends in a particular jurisdiction: Does the data in your jurisdiction show there are disparities and disparate outcomes based on race within your child welfare system? Do trends of removal identify sources of problems that the jurisdiction could address to prevent future removals, like the problem of children being removed because they’ve been left alone being addressed with more affordable child care?

Additionally, as the article by Betsy Fordyce points out, lawyers can listen to system-involved youth, support their advocacy, and help to amplify their voices. And as the three articles from Jenny Pokempner outline, lawyers can use the provisions in the Family First Prevention Services Act to advocate for permanency and connections for older youth in foster care. That advocacy can push an entire system to change by developing needed placements and services to address the needs of older youth.

Small actions can make big changes, and zealous advocacy on behalf of each client is not only our job but also makes a difference and can push an entire system to do better for all children we serve. The Children’s Rights Litigation Committee is here to help you and is focused on producing content to assist you in working toward change and being the best advocate you can be.

Here are some additional resources from our archives that you might find helpful:

Please let us know if there is other content you would find useful. Together, let’s all do our part to change the child welfare system so it works better for our kids, families, and communities.

Cathy Krebs is the director of the Children’s Rights Litigation Committee


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