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January 01, 2016

Representing Parents in Child Welfare Cases--Inside the Book with Martin Guggenheim and Vivek Sankaran

Claire Chiamulera

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.

Representing Parents in Child Welfare Cases: Advice and Guidance for Family Defenders fills a void in the child law field. Published by the American Bar Association, the book’s 17 chapters guide parent representation at every stage of a child welfare case and offer case-specific advocacy skills. 

The book grew from the work of the Steering Committee for the ABA Parent Representation Project at the ABA Center on Children and the Law. For 10 years, the Steering Committee has worked to raise the national profile and quality of parent representation. Two of its members, Martin Guggenheim, New York University Law School Professor, and Vivek Sankaran, University of Michigan Law School Professor, edited the book. CLP chatted with them about the book.

What prompted this book? 

MG: One way you create a sense of being a field is you have a book, a practice manual, a set of ideas. If you think of criminal defense work, it would be unimaginable to think there would be criminal defenders in different states that didn’t have treatises to draw on to help them in their practice. There was no such volume in our field. 

What makes this book unique? 

VS: It is the only book that helps all of us understand what good parent representation should look like. For anyone interested in learning more about why parents should get adequate representation and what that should look like, this book is an incredible tool.

What are 3 reasons parent attorneys should read the book? 

VS: One is it provides an incredible resource for attorneys to do the best work they can on behalf of clients. The second is because it shows how much we have grown as a community. If you look at the authors, they’re all leaders at different offices across the country. It shows how this has become a national movement to strengthen parent representation. Third is if they buy the book it will support the ABA’s parent representation project, which has really been the leader in organizing this movement. It’s important that we sustain it.

How have your experiences shaped this book?

MG: What always kept me eager to be involved in this field was, first, the extraordinary feeling it provides to save a family, to keep a family together. It is a field where excellent lawyering makes a difference. We don’t just win judgments for some monetary award. We save families—the most important relationship in the world. We make it possible for children to be raised in their homes and for parent and adult caregivers who love their kids to have the great joy and human right to raise them. It’s hard to think of something of greater importance.

In addition, it was also a field that no one knew existed. In law school, there aren’t any clinics or trainings to go into this work. No one thinks about it as a field. Domestic violence, immigration, criminal defense, civil service… are all a field. Parent defense? What kept me in it and drew me to it was that so few people were paying attention to it. One of my purposes was to bring this to the national agenda, to make it something people would know is happening and deserves to be recognized. It is a field people who believe in civil rights and reproductive justice, fairness, and family can go into. 

VS: Part of the good thing of having me and Marty edit the book is that we’ve worked in different jurisdictions and we each bring different philosophies and experiences to the book. By having both of us look at all of the chapters we were able to ensure different views and voices were heard.

How do children benefit from this book? 

VS: Children benefit because studies have repeatedly shown effective parent representation helps children by:

  • preventing them from unnecessarily being taken from their parents, 

  • getting them home quickly when they are removed, and

  • expediting the process for them and ensuring their stay in foster care—whether they return home or they go into another placement—happens quickly. 

Studies have shown that good parent representation accomplishes all of these goals. What this book does is help all of us understand and get a common baseline of what good parent representation looks like. Right now, far too few people know what that looks like.

What does the book offer attorneys, both long-timers and newcomers?

MG: The preface and Chapter One are designed to pull people into the field. They were written to help you appreciate that this is a subject worthy of one’s attention and that it delves into some of the most important and complicated constitutional questions the Supreme Court addresses. 

The rest of the book is how to be a parent defender, how to be good at this work— both for the novice and long-timer. It contains basic things lawyers should be doing in each case and also sophisticated ways to do them better. 

In addition to parent attorneys, who would benefit from reading this book? 

MG: Judges would benefit from looking at the book, as well as children’s lawyers. Agency lawyers who see their job as helping families overcome barriers to the safe return of children would also benefit. 

VS: In order for our system to function, everybody needs a good understanding of what good parent representation should look like. I would highly recommend this book to judges, court improvement directors, and agency lawyers. Part of what we hope is that it will get people to think about parent representation differently and then start pushing for that within their own jurisdictions. 

What new ground does the book cover?

MG: It is current in giving lawyers a very good map of what they need to do. The broad outline of each case is fairly straightforward: parents or caregivers have custody of a child who either is removed from their custody or the parent is threatened with the imminent removal and the lawyer is assigned to represent the parent. That’s the arrangement. The parents may be immigrants, may be undocumented, or may reside in another state. The book covers interstate and intercountry and criminal overlap, so I think all of the permutations of the field are covered. Unmarried partners who are either named or unnamed as abusers or neglectful caregivers are also covered in the book.

The book is comprehensive. How should readers approach it? 

VS: It depends on the reader’s goals. It’s not a book that you need to sit down and read from start to finish. It’s one that can be read independently looking at the different chapters. If you are a reader interested in systemic change, then you should start with Joanne Moore’s chapter on systemic change. Everybody should start reading the Introduction to frame it; it’s not very long.  From there, look at the Table of Contents and figure out what’s on your mind right now. The book is intended to be read out of order based on the topics.

What can you tell readers about the book’s authors? 

VS: The authors come from all over the country and reflect the top of our field. These are people who have been thinking about issues affecting parents for many years and they leapt at the chance to share what they have learned with others. Many of the authors sit on our Steering Committee and had already been identified as leaders in the field. We were looking for people who had expertise in different areas of parent representation.

Ten years from now, what do you envision as defining qualities of parent representation? Will this book play a role getting there? 

MG: Ten years from now we’re going to see multidisciplinary offices throughout the country that are representing parents in these proceedings with lawyers, social workers, and parent advocates. They’ll see that what you do in court is an important but far from an exclusive part of the job. The book lays out a blueprint of what needs to be done differently in most parts of the country than is being done today. The hope is to persuade the policy makers and local government that invest in this field on the lawyer side to reimagine the work that can be done and to do it in the way the book calls for. That’s what we hope will happen.

VS: Ten years from now I hope states will have recognized that parent representation is an essential part of the child welfare system and will start making or will have made the financial investments that need to be made to ensure that every parent who goes through the system has effective parent advocacy. I hope that this book plays a role in educating individuals first why good parent representation is needed, but also what we should be fighting for—what should it look like after we have made the investments to get there. This book, more than just a set of standards, really fleshes out what in each case parents’ lawyers have to be doing for our system to succeed.

Order the book from the ABA Webstore

$99.95 (list); $74.95 (ABA members) Proceeds benefit the ABA Parent Representation Project. ISBN: 978-1-63425-297-3, Product Code: 1620699, 2015, 446 pages, 7x10, Paperback.