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March 01, 2016

How to Get Results on a State Taskforce: An Interview with Marissa McClellan

Sally Small Inada

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.

In the February issue, CLP looked at what practitioners might consider if they were asked to serve on a state taskforce. The article covered potential pros: good for career and agency—and cons: heavy time and work commitment. CLP now talks with Marisa K. McClellan, Solicitor, Dauphin County Children and Youth, about serving on Pennsylvania’s statewide taskforce to implement HB 4980, the Strengthening Families Act. This conversation highlights McClellan’s experiences, and skills required to produce results on a state taskforce.

CLP: Tell us about Pennsylvania’s taskforce.

MM: This federal law, HB 4980, covers sex trafficking, reasonable and prudent parenting standards, and revisions to the permanency option APPLA—Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement. The taskforce is looking at ways to better protect and monitor victims of sex trafficking that are part of the foster care system; provide older youth with a more “normal” experience in foster care by looking at such things as driving privileges and the ability to participate in afterschool activities; and increase the age for APPLA.

CLP: What goes on during a typical meeting? 

MM: What’s interesting to me are the opinions. There are a lot of related but diverse views shared by attorneys, caseworkers, different agencies, police. It’s interesting to read the same document and get the huge variety of responses. People react according to their discipline. With attorneys, for example, parent attorneys are thinking of their clients, agency attorneys are thinking how to represent the agency, children’s attorneys think about the kids.

It’s important to have that diversity. DHS (Pennsylvania’s state department of human services) does a good job pulling the group together. If someone’s not included, we don’t know what we miss. It’s dangerous to not get all the possible views.

We get materials and documents before the meeting. I prep by reviewing the legislative bills, Power Points, drafts, and opinions. If I’m on a subgroup, we often have a phone conference or two between meetings. I also have to review the materials for the subgroup to make that call count. Most times the group has time set on the agenda for each workgroup to report back on their topic-that way the group hears what each group comes up with and how they got there.

CLP: How does DHS choose participants like parent attorneys who aren’t in an agency?

MM: DHS looks for parent attorneys who are actively involved in the field. For example, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh both have groups of attorneys who focus on child welfare cases. The important factor is making sure many views and professions are represented so there is  better buy-in across the state so when it comes time for implementation, there is greater statewide support. Of course, not everyone agrees on everything but we try to come up with compromise and collaboration when possible.

CLP: Taskforce days can be intense and busy. You talked about being prepared; what else goes on? 

MM: We have to prepare and be ready —we are there for a whole day, but time is tight. We’re usually in a big room with 16-18 round tables, with anywhere from 40 to 80 people in that room, plus people calling in. We have to follow the agenda to get everything done. 

Mornings will have reports and presentations, with open discussion to go over certain aspects. There’s a microphone on each table so we can give feedback. Phone people have to be assertive to get their comments heard.

Afternoons we break out into smaller groups, maybe we need to refine something from the morning. It can also be a new subgroup – we volunteer on topics of interest. If we can get it done in one meeting, we’ll report back at the end of the day.

My main frustration is redundancies in the discussions. It’s understandable: people can’t be at all the meetings, so they miss one and then want to express their opinion on something already discussed. We have to keep updating—it feels like getting stuck in a rut and we risk losing momentum.

We meet one day a month, so for a taskforce lasting a year, that’s 12 days. I have to review materials at night, so probably two -five hours a month for review--maybe more if I’m on a subgroup. Often a subgroup needs more work than can be done in one day, so we meet by phone biweekly, review documents, discuss back and forth. I estimate I spend about 120 hours per taskforce.

CLP: What’s your main focus for your taskforce involvement?

MM: I’m interested in all of the provisions, but I volunteered for the normalcy provisions subgroup. I’m interested in how they’ll work in practice. (PA just began implementing the normalcy provisions in January 2016. Foster parents can take children on overnight trips or allow school activities that would previously need a judge’s permission.) Before if I couldn’t get a parent to allow their child to do an activity, we had to ask the judge: Can Susie go on this trip? Be in a school musical? Play soccer? Now the judge won’t hear about Susie’s activities.

I’m excited and nervous about the travel out of town on sport or band trips. It’s a big change. I’m used to arranging court orders if a child went out of town. One foster child is in a choir with the foster family; they went out of town every weekend to New York. So I’d go to the judge and get an order from November to March allowing weekend travel. Now that foster family can take the child without the court order.

I’m not worried about liability; it’s more of a habit of cluing the court in on everything via the orders. Actually maybe I am a little worried about liability, because before I knew we had the judge’s stamp of approval. 

In some ways it’s freeing, in some ways—more work. By getting the orders we were always checking in with the kids and the court got a good idea how and what the children were doing. It goes to supporting child well-being. If we got orders for a lot of school activities, then children were engaging in school, keeping up with friends, likely adjusting fairly well. Now I’ll have to interview the foster parents more, write another report for the court summarizing children’s activities. There’s never been a new law that didn’t come with extra work.

CLP: How did PA get ready to implement the normalcy provision?

MM: Pennsylvania’s caseworkers had to be trained by December 2015 so they could begin putting the normalcy provisions into action in January 2016.

The Child Welfare Resource Center provided the training. I think it took a couple months to set up, and was ready to go by November. It’s really good, I took it. It’s interactive, takes an hour on the computer.

CLP: As a practitioner, do you come back (from the taskforce) and solicit colleagues’ opinions? How does your role as solicitor inform your work on the taskforce?

MM: Absolutely I get feedback! I had big questions on successor guardianship (from another taskforce), what clearances are needed at the time the guardian is named? Who’s in charge? I kept interviewing our business manager about how the [successor guardian] process was handled and what the sticking points were. I’m always asking colleagues “Practice-wise, what do you think?” or “How is it going to help? How’s it going to impact practice?” I can be pretty assertive with my questions, but the county definitely derives a benefit. That’s probably why they send me.

CLP: Do you have any advice for someone who is considering serving on a taskforce?

MM: Look into and research the taskforce issue. Look at current case law and dig into what resources are out there. Realize that you go to assist, not just be educated. You give to the group. Our workgroups use expertise and experience to get results. For novices or new people, it can be a take vs. give experience and could weigh the group down. You are there to provide results. Without results, we risk being seen as a waste of time and time is a luxury child welfare agencies don’t have. 

One way to get experience but not slow down a work group is to shadow a current member. Offer to do research or gradually take over some responsibilities when you’re up to speed.

CLP: Any last thoughts?

MM: Lots of people, even practitioners don’t know the state does this (taskforces). We collaborate—people from the trenches, getting together to solve problems and do it in a neat way. 


Sally Small Inada, MA, is marketing and communications director at the ABA Center on Children and the Law, Washington, DC.


The ABA Center on Children and the Law is pleased to partner with several other Technical Assistance providers in Pennsylvania including the Pennsylvania Office of Child, Youth and Families, Child Welfare Resource Center, Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network, and the Administrative Office of PA Courts. As part of the collaboration, counties receive targeted services to help children and families in the child welfare system achieve better outcomes around safety, permanency and well-being.


This article was supported by the Pennsylvania Permanency Barriers Project