February 26, 2020 Practice Points

Five Tips for Lawyers Representing Children under Five

Lawyers have a critical role to play for their youngest clients. Here are some tips to ensure you are providing holistic representation.

By Tori Porell
  1. Ensure that young children receive developmental screening early and often. Young children in foster care are more likely than not to have developmental delays in at least one area, such as language, motor skills, or growth. Standardized screening, whether with a screening tool like the Ages & Stages Questionnaire (ASQ) or by a pediatrician, is necessary for not only early identification of these issues but also early intervention to help kids thrive.
  2. Understand attachment. Attachment is everything for young children. Our earliest learning happens in the context of a relationship with a loving, attuned caregiver. If children are able to form a healthy early attachment to someone (whether a parent or substitute caregiver), they are more resilient and are more equipped to form other attachments later. Attachment should be a consideration at every point in representing young children, including transitions, visitation, and permanency.
  3. Advocate for early intervention services. Federal law, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), provides two systems for early intervention services for young children: Part C for birth to three-year-olds and Part B for preschool-age students (three-to-five-year-olds). This legislation includes strict timelines to receive these services and specific provisions for students transitioning to preschool and to kindergarten, which attorneys can help enforce for their young clients.
  4. Know that preschool is more than just playtime. For children who have experienced trauma or have developmental delays, preschool is an especially crucial intervention. Preschool provides a chance for young children to learn vital social-emotional skills, build supportive relationships with teachers, and gain exposure to pre-academic concepts necessary for kindergarten. Attorneys should advocate for any clients over three years old to be enrolled in a high-quality early education program, like Head Start, which foster youth are automatically eligible for.
  5. Don’t forget about physical health. Physical health is never more important than in early childhood, when children’s bodies and brains are experiencing rapid growth. Nutrition, sleep, and exercise are three of the most critical factors in early learning and have profound impacts on young children’s mental health and overall well-being. When advocating for young children with extreme challenges, sometimes there is a need to go back to basics and ensure that these fundamental needs are met first.

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Tori Porell is a second-year Equal Justice Works Fellow, sponsored by the Morrison & Foerster Foundation, at the East Bay Children’s Law Offices in Oakland, California.

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