December 01, 2016

Changing the Child Welfare Landscape: Tips for Parent Attorneys on Building Relationships with Social Services Staff

Center for Family Representation

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 ABA recently published Representing Parents in Child Welfare Cases: Advice and Guidance for Family Defenders. The book gives parent attorneys the knowledge and skills to ensure quality, consistent representation of parents in all stages of child welfare legal proceedings. The following article is an excerpt from the book. Look for more excerpts in future issues.

The most important question in many child welfare cases is not whether a parent “neglected” his or her child, it is whether and when children can safely live at home with their parents. Case planners are central to determining how and when that happens. They make referrals, observe visits, and generate court reports that detail a family’s progress and struggles.

An effective way to achieve success in individual cases while slowly changing the child welfare landscape in the jurisdiction is by building collaborative relationships with agency case planners, supervisors, directors, managers, and policy makers.

Building relationships with front-line staff can be challenging; agency staff may not trust an attorney who advocates for a parent. Traditionally, child welfare professionals have made decisions without input from parents’ attorneys, and initial reception may be cold. However, maintaining positive relationships with case planners ultimately helps the client and counsel achieve their goals. 

The following are basic steps parents’ counsel can take in building positive relationships with case planners:

  • Early in the case, get introduced to the case planner. If the agency lawyer does not allow communication between attorneys and case planners, explore whether counsel can reach either a formal or informal agreement that guides communication in particular areas, such as visitation, services, conferences, and placement resources. In New York City, discussions among all the professionals in the system led to the development of formal rules allowing for certain kinds of communication between parents’ lawyers and caseworkers, so long as the topics discussed only address details regarding the service plan and avoid discussion of the merits of charges in the petition. See N.Y.C. Admin for Children’s Services, Protocol for Communication Between ACS and Provider Agency Caseworkers and Attorneys Representing Children and Parents (2012) (Appendix C to this chapter).
  • Find out how the case planner prefers to communicate, such as by email or phone, and act accordingly.
  • Ask questions rather than directing the case planner to take certain actions. If the visits are not going well, ask why and what he or she has observed. Similarly, if a referral has not been made, ask if counsel can provide assistance. Avoid making assumptions and instead ask questions to trouble shoot challenges. 
  • Develop a referral list and offer information about services to case planners. If a particular therapist helped a client on another case, provide the therapist’s contact information to the case planner on this case.
  • Be knowledgeable about services that counsel thinks are appropriate for the family and be able to explain why they are the best services.
  • If counsel attends meetings with case planners, debrief afterwards with the case planner about how the meeting went, clarify any ambiguities, and highlight the positives.
  • Use plain language and stay away from legal terms, acronyms, or other terms of art with which the case planner may not be familiar.
  • Attend out-of-court conferences and focus on issues that are often the most critical to successful reunification, such as visitation, placement, and realistic services that suit the family. Counsel’s attendance and participation (or that of someone from counsel’s office) show that counsel is thinking outside the parameters of court and is concerned about the needs of the family.
  • Reframe a parent’s negative behavior and build on his or her strengths. Sometimes case planners experience the worst of a parent, who may appear angry or uncooperative. Look for opportunities to point out a parent’s resiliency in the face of adversity, willingness to receive help, love for his or her children, openness to new parenting techniques, or improved insight. If the parent is not participating in his or her service plan, explain to the case planner why he or she should not conclude that the parent is resistant to change. If the parent is saddled with too many appointments or tasks or there is some other explanation, find out what it is and help the case planner better understand what the parent is going through.
  • Frame situations from the perspective of the needs of the children as this demonstrates counsel is thinking about the entire family. Talk about ways to improve the attachment between parent and children, including by introducing specific activities at visits and addressing the therapeutic needs of the children. Underscore how the parent desires to assist in that process.
  • Do not gloss over allegations or pretend they do not exist, but talk about safety and safety planning and how the family may be reunified if certain steps are put in place.
  • Keep case planners in the loop. If the parent’s contact information changes and counsel has permission from the client, give that information to the case planner right away. When the parent completes a program and tells counsel but not the case planner, relay that information to the Agency or opposing counsel right away rather than waiting until court.
  • Within reason, give case planners the benefit of the doubt if they make no referral or fail to schedule a visit as quickly as counsel would like. There may be many reasons for the delay including a large caseload, crises with other parents, emergency removals, non-working phone numbers, and more. When counsel contacts a caseworker or his or her supervisor, focus on the needs of the family and enlisting help rather than only addressing the case planner’s negligence. Zealous advocacy and holding the case planner accountable in a reasonable way are not mutually exclusive.

On a broader level, systemic changes can happen by collaborating with the department of social services in targeted areas. In New York City, there are several examples of family court practitioners coming together with the department of social services to create systemic change. In one instance, attorneys for parents and children identified mental health as an area of concern to focus collective efforts. Stakeholders across child welfare and New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) held a series of meetings and worked with attorneys and social workers for parents, children, and mental health practitioners to create a guide for child welfare professionals. See N.Y.C. Admin. for Children’s Services.Principles to Inform Child Welfare Decision-Making Regarding Mental Health Issues (2013).

A similar process occurred with the creation of ACS’s “Visitation Guidelines and the ACS Visit Host Guidelines.” Parents’ attorneys were crucial in developing best practices with the department around visitation and gave feedback about those policies once they were implemented. Similar efforts resulted in guidelines regarding working with young parents in out-of-home foster care, communication protocols between case planners and attorneys for parents and children, and visit hosts. These collaborations create opportunities to implement new policy and build relationships among attorneys, case planners, supervisors, and managers. They also enhance work on individual cases.

Taking the following steps can help launch the process toward larger systemic change:

  • Find opportunities to connect. If there are policies being implemented by the department of social services, offer to give feedback during the development stage and again several months after implementation.
  • Schedule a meeting with the department of social services to discuss common issues of concern such as visitation, domestic violence, immigration, and mental illness and make a plan of action together. Try to include professionals outside of child welfare that can improve the practice. Encourage the department to include parents and families affected by the child welfare system in policy discussions.
  • Use every opportunity not only to share the parent’s perspective but also to ask questions about the perspective of the department of social services and other stakeholders.
  • Offer to share training opportunities with department heads or to present the “parent advocate perspective” with their new staff.
  • Try to develop a routine meeting with caseworkers and managers to talk about collective work on individual cases, to trouble shoot challenges, and to acknowledge success. This creates an opportunity for broader and deeper conversations about the practice.

Staff from the Center for Family Representation, New York City, contributed to this article: Richard Barinbaum, Jillian Cohen, Michele Cortese, Payal Dalal, Elizabeth Fassler, Maura Keating, Jennifer Miller, Sandy Rosin, and Christine Zielinski.

This article was adapted from “Chapter 6: Achieving the Client’s Objectives to Shorten Foster Care Stays and Reunify the Family.” In Representing Parents in Child Welfare Cases, published by the American Bar Association. (PC: 1620699).