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December 17, 2018 Practice Points

How Lawyers and Judges Can Help to Prioritize Prevention

By Jessalyn Schwartz

In November, the Children’s Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) of the Department of Health and Human Services published an informational memorandum. The memo encouraged child welfare agencies, courts, service providers, and other stakeholders to work together to establish programs and approaches for preventing the occurrence of child maltreatment and avoiding the need for removal and agency involvement. This reflects a positive trend towards breaking the cycle of premature and unnecessary removals from homes and investing in communities to prevent many of the problems that lead to familial involvement with the child welfare system.

The memorandum highlights steps stakeholders in the larger child welfare puzzle—including attorneys, judges, and courts—can take to further the ACF’s goals. It discusses the unique position judges have in bringing attention to the importance of prevention and in bolstering the credibility of and support for agencies that seek to shift the focus to family strengthening and prevention efforts. Judges could bring important stakeholders into the conversation and guide policy and reform efforts in a way that others involved in the system can’t. As for attorneys, it is well-known that clients involved with the child welfare system are often at a disadvantage and predisposed to involvement due to poverty conditions, a history of agency involvement, domestic violence, or other factors. The memo stresses that high quality legal representation is key, both prior to and after contact with the system. Attorneys are distinctively situated to deal with collateral issues—such as housing, paternity actions, child support, and employment—to help circumvent the need for extensive agency involvement, and to advocate for necessary services toward that goal.

Within the text, ACF discusses the components of successful prevention and family strengthening programs. This includes the availability of voluntary services, services with a less visible connection to the child welfare agency (due to the stigmatization that can occur with connection to the agency), and programs being staffed by community residents, especially those who have experienced a benefit from services in the past. These programs should be centrally located in communities where the need exists and should mirror the values, norms, and cultural makeup of the community as a whole. Services should be available to anyone in the community who seeks them, creating a non-stigmatizing approach and not shutting out children or parents who aren’t yet involved with or deemed “at-risk” by the child welfare system. ACF believes there should be a focus on parental protective factors and concrete support services, such as food assistance, housing help, legal aid, child care, clinical support, and peer mentoring. The goals of these guidelines are to increase accessibility and receptivity to the services, promote cultural competence within service provision, and to intentionally foster social connections between families, decreasing isolation.

ACF highlights examples across a number of states where prevention programs are working—including Maryland, Colorado, California, and Nevada—and nationwide partnerships with Casey Family Programs. One such model in Alleghany City, PA, utilizes family support centers featuring parent education, child development courses, and helping families make connections to each other and to necessary services. The community has seen lower rates of child welfare investigations and has an increase in support center engagement by families. They also feature after school programming to combat educational disparities and gang involvement and in-home and family residential treatment programs to address issues of mental health and substance abuse in family settings.

Reviewing the methods and frameworks that are yielding positive results in varied communities across the country is essential to identifying what could make a difference in the communities where we practice, and this focus on the federal level may assist in obtaining funding and support for communities in need. A united approach in achieving greater familial stability and an awareness of the information and guidance in the memorandum will allow attorneys and others invested in the success of prevention efforts to effectuate meaningful change moving forward.

Jessalyn Schwartz is an attorney in Washington, D.C. with a background in child welfare, mental health, and education.

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