May 20, 2019 Practice Points

Five Tips for Advocating for the “Most Connected Placement”

A few ways you can help your child clients stay in contact with the people who love them and their own communities.

By Virginia Corrigan, Brent Pattison, Jennifer Pokempner, and Jennifer Rodriguez

How can lawyers advocate to ensure that their clients are being placed not just in the “least restrictive” setting but in families where children are the most connected to people who love them and to their own communities? Here are five tips to get you started.

  1. Engage your client, their family, kin and community.

    1. Ask your client who they love. Who loves them? Who do they feel safe with? Do they have coaches, teachers, families of friends, or faith leaders who might be resources? Where do they want to be? Children and youth can provide some of the best information on possible placements with kin and other members of their community. Don’t focus on the “placement” but on identifying and nurturing the relationship. Ask your client’s family members and kin if and how they are able to be in your client’s life, whether though relationship or providing a home, and any needed supports to do so. Relationships often turn into families.
    2. Make it possible for your client, their family, and identified caring adults to be part of key meetings and hearings so they can be involved in planning and decision making.
    3. Ensure your client has many social and enrichment opportunities outside of the system to develop relationships with caring adults.
  2. Use the law in motions, holding hearings, and appeals to support a disposition of the most connected placement and to oppose placement in group care. 
    1. Does the placement meet your jurisdiction’s legal standard for a disposition and has the state met its burden of proof that a placement is the least restrictive setting?
    2. Make the state demonstrate that the proposed placement is the least restrictive placement under federal law and any state law provisions. Have less restrictive settings been tried and exhausted? Has placement with family or foster been tried with supports in place to address specific challenges?
    3. Have reasonable efforts been made to identify family, prevent placement, or finalize the permanency plan, which if provided could support the most connected placement? 
    4. Ensure that you are given an opportunity to weigh in on any placement decision by:
      1. enforcing any law or court rules that require that you are provided notice and an opportunity for a hearing prior to a placement change;
      2. where such law does not exist, requesting an immediate hearing to challenge the placement based on principles described in (2a) and (2b); and
      3. requesting an order that any placement changes will not occur without prior notice. 
  3. Use the research to bolster and strengthen your argument that your client should be placed in a setting that is the “most connected.” Cite research in your motions, arguments, and hearings that shows that:
    1. Separating children from their family causes harm—
      1. Separating Families May Cause Lifelong Health Damage;
    2. There is almost no evidence that residential treatment is an effective treatment intervention;
    3. Any positive effects occur during short treatment stays in residential care and do not persist after transition out of residential treatment—
      1. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2010), and
      2. Magellan Report (2008); and
    4. There is expert consensus that placement in residential treatment and group care causes harm. Stays in residential treatment and group care can interfere with healthy development, exacerbate maladaptive behaviors, result in victimization and abuse, decrease chances of permanency, and make youth vulnerable to harm both in the setting itself and after the youth transitions to another setting or out of care—
      1. GAO Report (2007),
      2. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (2014), and
      3. Unsafe and Uneducated (2018).
  4. Present evidence about how disruptive a more restrictive setting would be and offer concrete alternatives. Show how a group care placement will affect a child’s relationship with family, education, faith practice, and participation in extracurricular activities. Pack the courtroom with (or provide letters from) community and family members who support the most connected placement and present a service plan that could be provided to support the youth in a family. Support youth in educating the court about their perspective and wishes.
  5. If a congregate care placement is approved, appeal the court order if you believe it is not supported by law or in the child’s best interest, and ensure there is a clear plan and time line to a transition to a family. Ensure plans are in place to maintain supportive connections; have all needs met, including educational needs; and provide access to age and developmentally appropriate activities, including social and extracurricular activities.

To learn more about advocating for the “most connected placements”, see:

Virginia Corrigan is a staff attorney at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, California. Brent Pattison a clinical professor of law and director of the Middleton Center for Children's Rights at Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa. Jennifer Pokempner is a senior attorney at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Jennifer Rodriguez is executive director of the Youth Law Center.


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