August 01, 2016

Advocacy for Parents at Family Team Meetings

Richard Cozzola, Lee Shevell

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

The “Family Team Meeting” is a process for engaging families in child welfare cases. In a growing number of states, agencies are using this process under a variety of names, including family team conferencing, family team meetings, family group conferencing, family team decision making, family unity meetings, and team decision making.1  

Depending on the model, the team might include children, parents, extended family, current caregivers, other important adults identified by the parties, caseworkers, therapists, children’s attorneys or guardians, and/or parents’ counsel. Sometimes these meetings happen informally. At other times, they take place based on agency regulations that require a meeting with parents before the agency may change the case plan, services, visitation, the child’s placement, or the permanency goal. 

Whichever model the jurisdiction uses, parents’ counsel should formally request from the caseworker or agency to be informed before all meetings. Parents’ counsel should also tell the client to let counsel know of these meetings. The more counsel attends these meeting with their clients, the greater likelihood of successful advocacy.

Planning for the Meeting with the Parent

Planning with the parent can both empower her and lead to better results. Planning enables the parent to be part of the process instead of a role player at a pre-orchestrated event. Figure out a strategy for the meeting: What information should the agency know? What are the best responses to concerns the agency or others are likely to have? Planning for these things with the parent helps her comprehend that if her attorney chooses not to bring up a particular concern in the meeting, it is for strategic reasons.

Make a list of the parent’s key concerns and those counsel believes are important. Prepare the client to answer particular questions counsel intends to ask at the meeting. The more the parent understands the process, the more likely she will be able to help herself at the meeting. For example, consider explaining to the parent something along these lines: “Sometimes it helps to tell the story about you and the boys and how important their toy trucks are to them. Even though you have heard me tell the story a million times, I am going to talk about it again. It helps them understand how much you focus on your children.”

Finally, develop a plan for how the parent can signal during the meeting that she wants to say something. Sometimes social services staff might interpret negatively a parent’s request to talk to the lawyer privately. To avoid this, when the parent gives the signal, her counsel can tell the other participants that counsel needs a moment with the parent. It is far better for the workers to draw negative inferences about the parent’s counsel than the parent.

When parents may bring supportive friends or relatives to a meeting, encourage them to do so. Sometimes the mere presence of someone on the parent’s side of the table helps parents feel less isolated. Discuss with the person before the meeting how she can help. When the purpose of the meeting is to consider a new placement resource, bring the person to the meeting. This will help initiate a change-of-placement decision.

Conducting the Family Team Meeting

Once the meeting begins, counsel should draw a diagram listing the names and roles of the persons at the table. Counsel’s checklist of important points and goals should be in a readily accessible place. Also keep the genogram of the family handy. Use a notepad, but only record what is important (such as a commitment by the agency to provide a particular service or something that should be brought up later).

Choose a place to sit where counsel can communicate with the client easily and directly. Most often this is next to the client. From the beginning, align and stay with the client. The client must understand counsel is there for the client, not as another part of the “system.”

When the meeting begins, the person leading the meeting might outline ground rules. If the people present refer to the parents by titles such as “parent” or “bio-mom,” suggest that everyone use proper names such as Ms. Bentley. Focus on listening at the beginning.

Possible Roles to Play at the Family Team Meeting

Counsel may play several different roles for the parent. What follows are five of the most important roles.

Translator. Child and family team meetings, like meetings on special education, can be full of jargon. These include short-hand terms for hearings, rules, forms, and types of services. Some are words that only exist in the unique world of child welfare. At one meeting, the convener asked a parent if she had any “anecdotes” about her child. The mother’s lawyer could tell that the mother was confused, and asked the convener what an “anecdote” was. This made the lawyer, not the client, appear confused and forced the convener to explain that she was looking for incidents that illuminated the child’s condition. This provided the lawyer with the opportunity to say, “Oh you want stories about the times he has trouble paying attention.” Once the mother understood this, she could rattle off story after story about the child’s challenges in staying on a task in a way that showed she understood the issues her child was facing.

Advocate. Lawyers receive training to be courtroom advocates. Advocacy at family team meetings involves many of the same skills as in court: listening, staying focused on the issues consistent with counsel’s theory, and having a checklist of things counsel wants to accomplish.

Meetings are not controlled by rules of evidence, but those rules exist for good reason. When a question or statement is vague, confusing, or conclusory, draw on evidentiary rules. Clarifying when and where something happened according to whom, is just as important at meetings as in the courtroom. When someone reports that a visit did not go well, counsel should ask for the source of the report, when the event took place, and what specifically did not go well.

Counsel should focus on the child’s needs both in services and in developing a positive relationship with the parent. If the agency has not followed through on transportation for visits, point out that missed visits disappoint both the child and the parent. Focus on solutions. When someone failed to follow a rule, point it out in a polite but firm way and open the door for fixing the problem. “I know that the agency’s rules require transportation to be arranged two days in advance. “Is there a way we can ensure, going forward that this will happen?”

Facilitator. Look for opportunities for the client to show her strong points and to explain her concerns. Then give the client the opportunity to do so. One such opportunity is when counsel responds to something said by a caseworker. Rather than answering the question, ask the client about the particular issue that gives the client the chance to answer the question phrased by counsel. For example, the worker might repeat a request that the client attend a new service at a particular day and time. Counsel might know the client is upset about this because she has to work at that time. The goal should be to set a different day and time for the service and to do so without the client displaying anger. This might be accomplished by asking the parent: “Could you tell the caseworker about your work situation on Wednesdays and let her know the other days that work for you?” This does more than fix the problem; it creates a record of why counseling began later than it might have. (“Do you remember the parent being at the April 6 staffing? On that date didn’t she tell you that she could not do therapy on Wednesday evenings, because she had to work late?”)

To identify client strengths, focus on the case theory, the client’s progress, and her connection with her child. Look for opportunities for the client to demonstrate these. For example, if a child has feeding issues, and the client has learned new techniques for dealing with the eating problems, ask her about a positive incident rather than an abstract principle. “Tell the caseworker about how you got Jessica to eat last week when she was pouting.” If counsel and the client have discussed the incident previously, the client should be more able to provide the information at the meeting. Her story of success shows the progress she made far better than merely saying, “I learned X skill that I will apply to my parenting.”

Counsel could also use the facilitator’s role to get other professionals at the meeting to describe incidents that further demonstrate the improved parenting and commitment to the child. If counsel’s preparation led to knowledge that a therapist has identified something that is both significant and helpful to the theory of the parent’s case, bring this out. “You observed that the child and parent said something really important when they were drawing pictures of each other. What was it? Why is that important for their relationship?” Frame the question to focus the witness on the critical issue or incident.

Storyteller. “If we are to be successful in presenting our case we must not only discover its story; we must become good storytellers as well. Every trial, every . . . argument for justice is a story.”2  Stories are one of the ways we tell each other about our lives. They are persuasive when they are real and make a point. One of the reasons for this is that a good story demonstrates a point while allowing the listener to draw her own conclusion, even when the arc of the story leads to that conclusion.3  

Some clients are good at identifying stories that exemplify a point; others have trouble doing so, especially when they are under stress. Sometimes it is easier for counsel to tell a story about their client than it is for the client. Regardless of who tells the story, it is important to remember that the story should focus on the parent and child. The story should show a skill the parent has learned that demonstrates an improved knowledge or ability, or highlight the parent’s ability to advocate for and connect with the child. For example, a parent’s lawyer might explain that when he or she attended an IEP with the parent, the school staff appreciated the parent’s ability to outline a way for school staff to respond to the child’s school problems. This demonstrates the parent’s knowledge and skill by showing her awareness of her child’s needs and attention to finding a positive solution. If her child is in foster care, her attendance at the IEP shows her increased commitment to her child. 

Negotiator. At a certain point in a meeting, counsel should try to reach a desired outcome. Look at the list of outcomes counsel wants to achieve. Think about what has been said at the meeting that advances them and propose something. If the agency hesitates or offers a different solution, consider it. If counsel needs time to talk with the client alone, ask for a few minutes. If possible, put the onus on counsel rather than the client. “I need to speak alone with Ms. Benton.” When alone, ask the client about what she wants and whether she can follow the solution proposed by the agency. Ask her if she has other solutions. When back in the meeting, don’t be afraid to be the tough negotiator to the client’s good one. “I think you are asking too much here, four different services on two days, even if Ms. Benton were to say she would try. It would be better to do them on the following schedule.”

Closing the Meeting

Ideally, all the meeting participants should confirm their understanding of the results of the staffing before leaving. If this cannot be done, go over the points and write them down. Then immediately after the meeting, follow up with a letter that confirms the agreements and outlines whatever remaining disagreements exist. The letter should be firm and friendly, not confrontational. (“Thank you for agreeing to increase Ms. Benton’s visits to two days a week because of the progress she has made, and the child’s desire to see her more. Thank you also for understanding that her work conflicts with scheduling a parent coach for Wednesday evenings. We agree to work with you to find another date and time, or parent coaching agency if necessary.”)

If the meeting creates or amends a case plan or other written document, be sure the client agrees that it furthers her goals. Also be sure that the client can comply with the newly imposed tasks. When counsel disagrees with a proposal, frame the disagreement in terms of the child’s and parent’s interests. (“From the perspective of a three-year-old child, the visits should be in a location where the child and parent can focus on each other and play together, not at a table in a busy McDonald’s.”) If the parent is asked to sign a document, take time with the parent, apart from the others. Ask if she can follow the steps outlined, and emphasize this is the time to ask for changes, if she wants them. If the client and counsel disagree with the outcome described in the document, consider drafting a concise statement outlining the disagreement in terms that show the client’s commitment to the child.

This article was adapted from “Chapter 10: Representing Parents at Disposition and Permanency Hearings,” by Richard Cozzola and Lee Shevell. In Representing Parents in Child Welfare Cases: Advice and Guidance for Family Defenders, edited by Martin Guggenheim and Vivek S. Sankaran, 2015. © 2016 American Bar Association. All rights reserved.

Richard Cozzola is the director of the Children and Families Practice Group at LAF in Chicago, Illinois, the largest provider of legal services to the poor in Chicago. He has represented parents, adolescents and children, foster parents, and relatives in Juvenile Court matters for over 30 years. 

Lee Shevell, LCSW, Esq., is an assistant public defender at Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender, Chicago, IL.

 

Endnotes

1. See, e.g., U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. Family Group Decision-Making, 2014.

2. Gerry Spence. Win Your Case 86, 2005.

3. See Dal Cin et al., Sonya. “Narrative Persuasion and Overcoming Resistance.” In Resistance and Persuasion. Edited by E. S. Knowles & J. A. Linn, 2004.