April 01, 2012

Michigan Judge Leads Project to Improve Parent Representation

Elizabeth Thornton

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.

Last month, CLP featured an article about how judges can ensure high quality legal representation for parents appearing before them. Here is one judge’s story about what he has done to improve representation for parents in his court.

As part of the study, evaluators met with parents, attorneys, and judges and observed courtrooms in four Michigan counties reflecting a variety of attorney practice models and demographics. The study noted many strengths of the representation Michigan parents received, but also found areas for improvement. 

One of the four counties studied was Kent County, where Judge Patrick Hillary hears child welfare cases.  Inspired by the evaluation findings, Judge Hillary convened a workgroup and started the Representation and Reunification Project. The project aims to improve parent representation and outcomes for children. 

Project Elements

Key project elements appear below. Most of the project goals have been implemented, but the group is still working to establish a parent partner program and social worker assistance program.   

Historical Perspective 

In the 1970s, few laws provided timely permanence of children in abuse and neglect cases.  Cases were often delayed for years with children languishing in foster care.  Judge John P. Steketee helped implement laws providing for increased permanency hearings and timelines. 

In 1997, the Adoptions and Safe Families Act (ASFA) further tightened guidelines to reunify or terminate parental rights within one year.  The result was the rehabilitation time for parents decreased and in some cases parents were not receiving services to help them reunify. 

To rectify any disparate treatment of parents, judges and others working with parents must work to better understand the situation and issues in each case. Courts must also ensure the parents’ attorneys are adequately trained to maximize the chances that parents will succeed. The best result is for children to reunify with rehabilitated parents.


To positively enhance and maximize effective attorney/parent representation and interaction in neglect cases.


1. Coordinated Efforts

The project seeks to promote collaboration between the Kent County Family Court, the Department of Human Services, private agencies, attorneys and the Michigan Supreme Court Administrative Office (SCAO), and understanding of mutual goals related this project.

2. Education and Training

a.  Statewide Webcast

Statewide web broadcasts provide training regarding attorneys’ representation of parents in Michigan neglect cases.  The Web broadcasts will be created and presented by the Kent County Court and attorneys.

b.  Specialized Training

Continuous specialized training is offered at the Kent County courthouse to help attorneys better understand the problems their clients face, including:

  • mental health
  • substance abuse
  • psychological test summaries and terminology
  • explanations of courses and workshops offered to clients and how they are created and monitored

c.  Supreme Court Administrative Office training

The project supports continued SCAO training at the Kent County Court on various legal topics provided by SCAO.

3. Attorney Mentor Program

Experienced attorneys are selected by the judges to volunteer as mentors for new attorneys or those in need of mentoring.

4. Parent Coordinator Program

Selected parents who have been previously involved in dependency court and have successfully reunited with children are paired with parents new to the neglect system. 

5. Attorney Performance Monitoring

The court monitors the attorneys’ performance and effective billing practices as well as the substantive results of the project.

6. Parents and Children Law Section

A Parents and Children Law Section of the Grand Rapids Bar Association will further the goals of this project.  The Association will help create the initial educational seminars and foster a continued commitment to the highest level of client representation. The association may be involved with seminars at the courthouse or educational luncheons after section meetings. The Association will include attorneys practicing neglect and delinquency law.  Neglect and delinquency represents two-thirds of the court’s docket and there is no association to which these attorneys belong.

7. Social Worker Assistance

Michigan State University School of Social Work will assist in any manner possible.  Grand Valley State University and Western Michigan University may also provide social worker interns who would work with the court (parents) for a period of six months to one year.


Project benefits include:

  • reducing the number of children in foster care,
  • lowering the number of children whose parental rights are terminated,  improving parent services,
  • reducing child maltreatment reoccurrence,
  • maintaining a highly effective, fairly compensated pool of appointed counsel.


Although the project has yet to be fully implemented, Judge Hillary is pleased with the representation that parents appearing before him are receiving.

Charley Clapp, an attorney who represents children and parents in child welfare cases in Kent County and who has been involved with the project observes that attorneys are encouraged to do their jobs well and to be strong advocates for their clients.  Judge Hillary’s leadership and emphasis on excellent representation for all parties, including parents, shows attorneys and parents that the parents are respected in the court process and that they will have a real and fair chance at reunifying their families. Clapp also noted that excellent representation furthers the ultimate goal of the court: reunifying families.

Elizabeth Thornton, JD, is a staff attorney at the ABA Center on Children and the Law. Her areas of focus include parent representation.