October 01, 2016

Training Model Teaches Best Practices and Improves Child Attorney Behaviors

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.

The ChildRep Best Practice Model, designed by the University of Michigan Law School from 2010-2015, gives child welfare lawyers skills to “raise the bar” when representing at-risk children. The model seeks to strengthen child representation in local courts and, as a result, improve case outcomes.

The National Quality Improvement Center on the Representation of Children in the Child Welfare System (QIC-ChildRep), housed at the law school and supported by the U.S. Children’s Bureau, developed the model after assessing child representation in the U.S. for a year. Through that assessment, the following six basic core skills were identified as best practices: 

  • Enter the child’s world.
  • Assess child safety.
  • Actively evaluate needs.
  • Advance case planning.
  • Develop case theory.
  • Advocate effectively.

The model reinforced these six core skills and took the form of a two-day training, followed by supplemental group trainings and one-on-one coaching sessions. Pilot trainings in Georgia and Washington tested the model’s effectiveness. Lawyers throughout both states were trained on the best practices then asked to apply them in practice. A study of these lawyers’ representation after the training by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found positive results. 

For the evaluation, 146 Georgia children’s attorneys and 118 Washington children’s attorneys representing a range of skills, experience, and motivation participated. For most attorneys, representing children entailed 20% or less of their legal work and income. Their practices were varied and included, in addition to child welfare, divorce and paternity, private adoption, truancy, and juvenile justice. 

Attorneys were randomly assigned to a treatment group (trained on the model) or a control group (not trained). Local court staff in each state assigned attorneys to represent children following their usual practice and appointed them as either treatment or control attorneys.

Study Findings

According to Chapin Hall in its report, Evaluation of the QIC-ChildRep Best Practices Model Training for Attorneys Representing Children in the Child Welfare System, lawyers who were trained in the model:

  • Aligned their behaviors more with national best practices.
  • Achieved permanency for older children in the child welfare system sooner.
  • Began to seek learning opportunities from experts and other attorneys, especially independent and isolated lawyers.

Attorney behaviors. The attorneys were evaluated on behaviors in four domains: 

  • Frequency of contact with individuals involved in the case
  • Time spent on selected activities
  • Frequency of certain events
  • Relationship and advocacy 

Attorneys who received the training in Georgia were found to meet with their clients more often, contact more parties in the case, spend more time on their cases, and engage in advocacy more than the control group attorneys.

Attorneys in Washington who were trained in the model were found to contact foster parents and substitute caregivers more, spend more time developing a case theory, and initiate nonadversarial case resolution approaches more than untrained attorneys. Trained attorneys were also involved in more family team meetings and motion hearings in their cases compared to the control group.

Child outcomes. The evaluation explored whether children assigned  attorneys trained in the model experienced differences in permanency outcomes, kinship placements, and rates of movement within one year of assignment compared to control attorneys. The children studied included all children assigned an attorney, trained and untrained, between mid-2012 and November 30, 2014 in both states.

Likelihood of permanency. The researchers found no difference in the likelihood of permanency among the children represented by trained and untrained attorneys in both states.

Prompt permanency. Children assigned to trained attorneys in Washington were 40% more likely to achieve permanency within six months than children represented by untrained attorneys. Differences were not found in the timeliness of permanency for children represented in Georgia.

Placement moves and kin placements. There were no differences in placement moves and placements with kin in either state among children represented by trained or untrained attorneys. 

Lessons for the Field

Several themes emerged from the study findings that may help other jurisdictions looking to strengthen attorney representation of children:

  • Attorneys trained in the model who provide client-directed representation and are appointed early may achieve permanency faster for older children. They are better able to influence situations if the course of action is clear and the child’s voice is influential in the case.
  • Attorney behaviors associated with effective representation of older youth included contacting foster parents or substitute caregivers, spending more time developing a case theory, and increasing nonadversarial approaches to resolving cases. Working differently, not spending more time, is key to effective representation. 
  • A framework, like the intervention’s six core skills, helps to engage attorneys initially, set targets and goals, and serve as a consistent structure for subsequent training/coaching.
  • Attorney buy-in and the ability to consent to participate in training (rather than requiring it) improves attorneys’ willingness to engage with a training program.
  • Independent and isolated attorneys welcome learning from peers and experts and are often willing participants in training.

The ChildRep Best Practice Model positively affects attorney behaviors and instills skills and best practices that are nationally accepted in child welfare cases. It also creates an avenue for solo attorneys in less populated regions with fewer networking and learning opportunities to learn from peers and experts and helped motivate them. While the impact of the model on child outcomes was small, achieving permanency sooner—especially for older youth—was one outcome linked to cases where attorneys were trained in the model.

COMING SOON! The ABA Center on Children and the Law is publishing  a new book on child representation in collaboration with the National Quality Improvement Center on the Representation of Children in the Child Welfare System. How to Improve Legal Representation of Children in the Child Welfare System will be available soon.

Claire Chiamulera, legal editor, ABA Center on Children and the Law, is CLP’s editor.