Local Funding and National Momentum
In 2020, the legislature in Washington State approved a two-year budget proviso totaling $500,000 that funded the work of the F.I.R.S.T. Legal Clinic for two years while additional data are gathered about the effectiveness of the interventions. Casey Family Programs has provided generous technical support and assistance to help collect and assess the data and impact of our work.
In 2019 and 2020, research conducted in New York City provided compelling evidence of the effectiveness of multidisciplinary representation for parents of children in foster care. Data provided empirical evidence that when parents are represented by a multidisciplinary team of lawyer, social worker, and peer advocate, who are salaried employees of an independent law office with administrative support and supervision, their children spend significantly less time in foster care and reunify with family more quickly without compromising child safety. Lucas Gerber et al., “Effects of an Interdisciplinary Approach to Parental Representation in Child Welfare,” 102 Child. & Youth Servs. Rev. 42, 52 (2019).
At the national level, over 20 states are now represented in a national cohort of pre-petition models led by University of Michigan Clinical Law Professor Vivek Sankaran. As more states explore creating similar models and funding sources, interventions for keeping families safely together are being reimagined across the country.
A report published by the ABA Center on Children and the Law indicates that in December 2018, the U.S. Children’s Bureau changed policy to enable states to claim Title IV-E administrative costs for attorneys and support staff providing independent legal representation to children and parents in child welfare proceedings. The policy was later extended to legal representation of tribes. As of March 2022, 32 states and 4 tribes have entered into agreements to maximize this opportunity.
People talk about rethinking child welfare and restructuring it, or abolishing it altogether, which are admirable goals, given the oppressive and racist system the foundation is built on. But as long as interactions with the child welfare agency include any possibility of modifying someone’s constitutional rights to the care and custody of children, the only answer is to involve an attorney who can protect those rights.
—F.I.R.S.T. Legal Clinic attorney Neil Weiss
Empowering Mothers to Share Their Stories
Furthering the mission of F.I.R.S.T., successful clinic moms now accompany us to present their voices and their perspectives of lived experience in the schools, universities, and conferences where these disciplines are taught. From law schools, nursing schools, schools of social work, medical schools, and midwifery and doula programs, the F.I.R.S.T. Legal Clinic’s mission is to positively impact the cultures of all the disciplines that engage with our clients.
This type of outreach builds interest and brings attention to an area where quality providers are desperately needed. A recent presentation to the University of Washington School of Law not only gave Jennifer Justice, a F.I.R.S.T. mom-turned-parent-ally, the opportunity to share her lived experience outside of the support group setting, but also provided a real-life introduction to what is happening on the front lines of a largely unknown area of law in crisis. Having a parent ally share her experience in the child welfare system not only provides opportunities for further healing but also inspired three law students to sign on as interns. The legal clinic was then able to use their assistance on a national policy brief that was drafted for Rep. Davis (D-IL) and used in a bill to support the reauthorization of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act to provide funding for pre-filing representation. Reaching out to the next generation of community service providers and medical and legal professionals is vital to making lasting changes to this system and how these disciplines interact with one another.
I have been able share my story at the University of Washington Law School, Imprint Magazine, a documentary, WSPAC (Washington State Parent Ally Committee) and weekly in the F.I.R.S.T. Mom’s Support group, to name a few places. Sharing my story not only helps spread the word about the wonderful things that the F.I.R.S.T. Clinic does, but also has been very healing to me. Recovery is a long journey, and they are in it for the long haul.
—F.I.R.S.T. Legal Clinic parent ally Jennifer Justice
One of F.I.R.S.T.’s more unique offerings is a weekly women’s support group that takes place virtually for existing and former clients. The goal of the group is to provide a safe space where mothers can support and learn from each other. Here they can build connections and supports that can extend well beyond the clinic’s involvement with their families. This weekly group is hosted by one of the clinic’s parent allies and includes the regular attendance of F.I.R.S.T.’s executive director and clinic attorney, Taila AyAy.
The support group has been one of the biggest surprises. It became so much more than initially intended. Involvement in these cases is very isolating, there is a lot of shame, and a lot of guilt. There are lots of questions that come up and the moms don’t always know who to turn to. This group provides a safe space to connect with other mothers with similar backgrounds. The veteran group participants provide hope and inspiration to the moms coming out of detox, moms that are experiencing fear and anxiety about what is going to happen, shame about using while pregnant, to see other mothers in different stages of recovery working with the clinic and doing well gives them hope.
—Taila AyAy, F.I.R.S.T. Legal Clinic executive director and clinic attorney
For clients to make this transformative journey of self with their babies, very often they first need permission from themselves. Permission to stop beating themselves up. Permission to let go of the past. Permission to see themselves as worthy of healing and worthy of love. Permission to walk away from pain (no matter how familiar) and to finally let go of an identity that was no longer serving them and, instead, to create a powerful new one.
Safety isn’t about the absence of a threat, but the presence of connection.
—Dr. Gabor Mate
When a compassionate parent ally, doula, midwife, nurse, social worker, doctor, or lawyer sets into motion the alchemy of vulnerability through nonjudgment in a parent who is struggling in that space of the unknown, transformational magic happens! Seeing clients dramatically shed their former selves and walk away from cycles of abuse and trauma is awe-inspiring. Watching others heal has been healing.
You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.
For many attorneys and advocates, the concept of self-compassion makes us very uncomfortable. We all identify with or know compassionate people who very often fail to extend to themselves any semblance of the patience, kindness, compassion, and grace that they would give to a complete stranger in need. During the pandemic, our office read Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, which had a profound impact on us.
This led to our office introducing reflective practice into our professional lives. Reflective practice is defined by Donald Schon as “cultivating the ability to reflect on one’s actions so as to engage in a process of continuous learning.” Our reflective practice was led by two extraordinary doctors: Dr. Ira Glovinsky, a licensed psychologist specializing in mood disorders in young children with autism spectrum disorder, with a PhD in special education, along with Dr. Gina Veloni, a licensed nurse specializing in perinatal, infant mental health, and reflective practice, with a PhD in infant early childhood development with a specialty in mental health and disabilities. Together we created an informed space for our entire office to process and reflect on the impacts of secondary trauma, burnout, and compassion fatigue.
The essence of trauma is disconnect from self.
Working regularly with Dr. Glovinsky and Dr. Veloni was a blessing for our office. And at the personal level, their work helped one of the coauthors of this article gain the perspective to set down the weight of their own past trauma and abuse, a sinking weight that had become almost unbearable. For the entirety of their legal career, they had kept their own childhood trauma and abuse compartmentalized away from their work, or so they thought.
A large part of their energy was spent pretending their past never happened at all, mostly out of fear and shame. Shame is just the truth being denied, and as Dr. Van der Kolk points out in the book The Body Keeps the Score, “the greatest sources of suffering are the lies we tell ourselves.” Setting this weight down and beginning the process of healing has enriched their work as an advocate, deepened their understanding of compassion, and kept them in the practice of law.
Vision for the Future
Common puzzle pieces contained within all of the disciplines our clients engage with are the motivation to provide compassionate care for the families we serve and an ever-growing frustration with the status quo of the systems we operate within. The F.I.R.S.T. Clinic believes the future of child welfare is in the thoughtful integration of these puzzle pieces currently scattered across nursing, social work, medicine, and law to connect a lasting cross-disciplinary network of community supports that can actually help families.
This cross-disciplinary vision will begin to take shape on August 11th, 2022, when F.I.R.S.T. will cohost the inaugural Washington State Perinatal and Parenting Mental Health and Substance Use Summit in Seattle. All statewide stakeholders in child welfare will be present, and the cohosts of the summit are the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts, the Department of Children, Youth and Families, the Office of Public Defense, the Department of Health, the Health Care Authority, the Washington Hospital Association, and the Washington chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Our summit keynote speaker will be Dr. Mishka Terplan, board-certified in obstetrics and gynecology and in addiction medicine. Dr. Terplan is nationally renowned in his work with an emphasis on addiction medicine, drug use in pregnancy, health disparities, stigma, and access to treatment.
Using this occasion, F.I.R.S.T. will introduce our new partnership with Open Table, a community-based, bottom-up, grassroots model drawing together the relational and social capital of communities for the common good. Open Table develops models that train people from an array of community sectors—including business, education, faith communities, healthcare, and others—to organize and co-invest their abundant and sustainable relational and social capital in individuals with complex needs to create solutions to daunting social challenges. It’s hard to imagine a system, organization, or family that would not benefit from having a team share their social capital to help build lasting and meaningful change.
This upcoming summit will be a historic cross-pollination of disciplinary thinking allowing students, teachers, and practitioners from fields that don’t normally communicate (much less cooperate) with each other to arrive at the potential for lasting solutions to decrease childhood trauma and better support the families we serve. Connecting the puzzle pieces across multiple disciplines through communication and collaboration will allow a new vision of child welfare to take shape across the country, a vision that F.I.R.S.T. believes is long overdue.