April 01, 2013

Improving Permanency for African American Families in Los Angeles

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.

California Partners for Permanency (CAPP) focuses on securing legally permanent homes for African American children who are overrepresented in the child welfare system. As part of a larger federally supported effort promoting well-being of foster children, CAPP integrates a strength-based Child and Family Practice Model.

Los Angeles, one of four pilot counties for the CAPP project, recently underwent an assessment to identify problem policies and practices that interfere with permanency for African American children. The assessment uncovered a range of barriers in dependency court and child welfare systems.

Select barriers, and improvements (some suggested and some already underway) aimed at addressing them, appear below. See the full report, Child Welfare Practice: Creating a Successful Climate for Change, for a full discussion.

Court-Related Barriers and Improvements

The assessment revealed that African American families face the following court-related barriers.

Court logistics are unwelcoming to families

Many parents have difficulty getting to court due to transportation challenges and costs. Once at court, the courtroom layout suggests families are a low priority. These include small seating areas, lack of space for families’ attorneys to place their files, and lack of private meeting spaces for families to meet with their attorneys.


  • Establish community-based satellite juvenile courts to make court hearings accessible to families.
  • Make decisions about design and location of satellite courts collaboratively with communities and factor in transportation challenges.

Judicial officers not consistently informed by practitioners about families

Reliance on court reports (often incomplete and inaccurate) instead of in-person reports by social workers results in case planning without full information.


  • Better align child welfare agencies with court departments.
  • Cultivate relationships between agency workers and judges, commissioners, and referees responsible for families.

Attorneys lack training related to needs of clients they represent, resulting in difficulty engaging clients

Deficiencies include how to talk to youth about accepting and participating in services, how to interview clients without retraumatizing them, and engaging clients in culturally sensitive ways.


  • Implement and evaluate a cultural humility curriculum that teaches sensitive questioning methods and enhances client engagement.
  • Ensure training improves skills and practice by tying implementation of training skills to work plans.
  • Conduct joint trainings with social workers to share different perspectives.

Attorneys are unprepared for court due to delayed court reports

Parents’ attorneys often received court reports on the day of hearings, forcing them to read them minutes before appearing in court. Faced with last-minute information, the attorneys entered hearings unprepared; they had limited time to confer with clients and no time to prepare evidence to rebut or confirm the new information. Continuances were often sought, adding to the courts’ dockets.


  • Require court reports to be shared with parents’ counsel before hearings.
  • Allow sufficient time for attorneys to meet with clients and prepare for hearings.

Limited advocacy for parents

The structure of parent representation often leaves parents uninformed of their rights. Relevant information is not always relayed to court officers, which slows permanency. Caseloads averaging 250-260 per parent attorney, along with low compensation, interferes with effective advocacy.


  • Establish realistic attorney caseloads to provide time and resources for “best practice.”
  • Pay parent attorneys fairly.

Child Welfare System Barriers and Improvements

The assessment revealed that across Los Angeles’s child welfare offices, African American families and youth experienced:

Ineffective engagement by child welfare practitioners

Social workers, lawyers, and judges are not equipped to engage children, parents, and extended family members. Families and youth are often not included in decisions. High caseloads and workloads are contributing factors.


  • Use Child and Family Teams and Team Decision Making to better engage families and promote successful reunifications.

Services not matched to needs

Related to poor engagement of families, services are often drawn from a list and not necessarily what works for families. Parents often must secure and pay for services on their own, creating a formidable barrier to access. Inappropriate services delay permanency and healing and recovery for children and parents.


  • Reduce time needed to link parents to resources.
  • Work more closely with group homes to reduce the transition time to lower levels of care.

Overlooking trauma histories

Inattention to children’s underlying needs and feelings related to the trauma they’ve endured is problematic. When services overlook trauma surrounding children’s physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and removal from home, healing is compromised. Similarly, parents often have trauma histories that affect their caregiving; services that do not address these histories and related behaviors often lead to mischaracterizing parents as noncompliant or hostile. This inattention can also leave relative and other caregivers without support needed to care for children.


  • Develop training modules to support child welfare agency staff in this area.
  • Expand parent advocacy programs to better engage parents early and provide them needed supports.
  • Implement a “Cultural Broker” program that provides liaisons to build better relationships between parents, families and community partners.


Workers not organized to maximize opportunities for safe and timely reunification

Many different professionals with different job functions and goals intervene with children and parents during a child welfare case. Lack of coordination and teamwork leads to conflicting goals, lack of clarity over who is the client, and confused priorities.


  • Work with local community service providers to build stronger partnerships, clarify goals for families, and provide expedited support to families.
  • Facilitate reunification with children.

The barriers uncovered in Los Angeles’s court and child welfare systems are common challenges when addressing permanency for families in the child welfare system. Practitioners may find the suggested improvements instructive. See the report for a full review of the practice and policy related challenges and recommended improvements.

Find the full report at: www.cssp.org/publications/child-welfare/institutional-analysis/Child-Welfare-Practice-Creating-a-Successful-Climate-for-Change.pdf