March 01, 2013

Rethinking Parent Representation in Minnesota: Law Clinic Steps Up

Mimi Laver

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.

Around the country, many communities are improving representation for parents whose children are involved in the child welfare system. By providing high-quality representation for parents, outcomes for children improve.1 Minnesota’s work in this area hit “crisis” mode2 in 2008 when public defenders across the state stopped representing parents.

This article describes the journey the child welfare community, along with a local law school, took to address the crisis.


Before 2008, the State Board of Public Defense represented children and parents in Minnesota’s 87 counties. In the years leading up to 2008, the State Board asked the legislature for more funding; the request was denied three times. In 2008, the State Board decided public defenders could no longer afford to represent clients that they were not mandated to serve.

Therefore, the public defenders, except in Hennepin County, stopped representing parents. They continued representing child clients, as directed by state statute.3 Each county had to provide attorneys for parents on its own. Most counties began contracting with individual attorneys, some former public defenders with experience in child welfare cases and some with little to no experience.

After this decision, the Minnesota Judicial Council named a multidisciplinary parent representation workgroup, chaired by Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Helen Meyer, to report on parent representation in child welfare cases.4 The workgroup set forth several benefits of representation for parents by qualified and culturally competent attorneys and made two recommendations:

  • Change legislation to mandate that parents have a right to a court-appointed attorney and that the attorney must be qualified and culturally competent.
  • Create a statewide funding source for parent representation, either a separate entity or a specific division within the Board of Public Defense.5

To date, while the Judicial Council and legislature have implemented laws and policies mandating minimum qualifications for parent attorneys, neither has adopted laws or policies mandating a parent’s right to count-appointed counsel or creating a separate funding source.

The Clinic

In 2009, Justice Meyer approached William Mitchell College of Law’s Co-Director of Clinical Programs, Professor Peter Knapp, and Resident Adjunct Professor Bradford Colbert about starting a clinical program focused on parent representation. William Mitchell, Justice Meyer’s alma mater, had 12 clinics and a rich history of practice-centered education. Professors Knapp and Colbert saw a great opportunity to have the law school become more involved in the child welfare community and lend its expertise to training lawyers to improve their practice. Professor Knapp had a “let’s try it” attitude, but wanted to ensure he and Justice Meyer developed a clinic the “right” way.


Justice Meyer and Professor Knapp refined the vision for the clinic. Joining them were Judy Nord and Ann Ahlstrom managers of the Minnesota Children’s Justice Initiative (CJI) (Minnesota’s Court Improvement Program) and members of the parent representation workgroup. The vision included providing high quality representation for parents, based on the ABA Standards of Practice for Parents’ Attorneys, as well as providing education for child welfare practitioners throughout Minnesota.


In early 2011, Joanna Woolman, a part-time public defender and Resident Adjunct Professor at William Mitchell, was chosen to direct the program.6 Professor Woolman helped further define the vision and implementation plan for the clinic. During spring and summer 2011, she began preparing for the fall semester. She studied the ABA Standards of Practice for Parents’ Attorneys and attended the ABA’s 2nd National Parent Attorney Conference. She also traveled to the Child Advocacy Clinic at the University of Michigan to learn how they run their clinic and she met the director at the new parent representation clinic at University of Iowa’s Law School.7

Advisory Board

An advisory board formed to guide and develop resources for the clinic. The Board includes all types of child welfare lawyers (those representing parents, the agency and children), members of the bench, two parent representatives (parents formerly involved in the child welfare system who now mentor and coach parents) and other community stakeholders. The board also included many members of the 2008 CJI Parent Representation Workgroup.


With financial contributions from Justice Meyer and the CJI, and strong support from William Mitchell, the Child Protection Clinic officially began on May 17, 2011.

Clinic’s First Year

Students Take Cases

Students participating in the parent representation clinic attended classes and took on legal representation of parents. The clinic’s first four students met once a week for 90 minutes, then worked on their cases under Professor Woolman’s supervision. The course component of the clinic taught students the substantive child protection law in Minnesota and also focused on lawyering skills and ethics.

Students first met their clients at court and continued to meet with them both in court and at the law school throughout the case. During individual supervision time with Professor Woolman, the students discussed case strategy, goals for the client, realistic tasks for the client’s case plan, and what additional support clients might need.

The students also gained skills in communication with other stakeholders and the court. Students practiced their written and oral advocacy skills with the judge (through written and oral motions) but also with other stakeholders between court appearances when they addressed clients’ ongoing needs and concerns.

Students each started with one case. Three more clients were added to the clinic’s caseload in November 2011. Guest speakers, including advisory board members and William Mitchell faculty, spoke with students during their classes. Working directly with clients, the students learned what an emotional experience it can be to have a child removed and have to work with the child welfare system.

The students learned that working with clients involved understanding the law and courtroom skills, but the more important, and more time-consuming, work involved interacting with clients. As one clinic student put it, “It is easy to vilify parents in these cases. There are always things that can be done to make families healthier, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we always know what is best for families. Families are nuanced and what works for one family might not work for another. I have learned a lot about how to meet a parent where they are. Working with clinic clients helps me remember that helping parents heal creates better outcomes for kids.”8

During the second semester, four more students joined the clinic. The goal for each student was to help families reunify when safe. If that was not possible, the goal was to give their clients a voice in what happens to their children. By the end of the first year, the clinic served 12 clients in Ramsey County (St. Paul, MN); seven were reunified either through a trial home visit or permanent reunification. In its first year, the clinic provided 700 hours of legal work.9 The work included in-court time and many out-of-court hours helping clients reach their case goals.


At the end of the first year, the clinic hired a consultant to evaluate the clinic. The evaluator gathered baseline data and identified areas for improvement. The evaluation consisted of surveys of parents, clinic students, and child law professionals in Ramsey County, such as judges, caseworkers, guardians ad litem, county attorneys, and court administrators. Survey responses for all groups were mixed on each question. Suggested improvements included:

  • having more training and supervision for the students,
  • not getting hung up on case details and instead viewing the big picture, and
  • working more collaboratively with the child welfare agency.

Client responses. The clients felt the students understood them and what they needed on their cases and they cared about them. Half of the clients had reunified with their children at the time of the surveys and several others were anticipating reunification shortly after. This outcome was the most positive aspect for the clients.

Student responses. The students were positive about their experience but echoed the others in recommending more training and more roleplay before going to court with clients. The clinic students reported learning many lawyering skills through the clinic. As one clinic student said, “Obviously you learn about the law, but the client contact has been amazing. You are really a counselor in every sense of the word. I have learned so much about the court process and how to be an attorney and what it means to advise clients.”10

The student also shared that families are much more complicated than she ever knew. Before her experience with the clinic, she had no idea how much government intrusion occurs in families’ lives and how biased the system is against these clients. The students also reported learning about the challenges of working within the child welfare system, including the slow pace of getting services for clients and adapting to different judges.

Moving the Clinic Forward

During its final board meeting of the year, the advisory board decided to stay together for at least one more year with Justice Meyer remaining as the chair. They recommended the clinic:

  • partner with the CJI on training,
  • develop a Parent to Parent mentor program, and
  • get involved in more policy and research.

During the clinic’s second year, work focused on these areas as the program expanded. The board also agreed to help raise funds for the clinic.

Clinic Expands

The clinic expanded into Hennepin County (Minneapolis, MN) where two students were handling cases. This expansion was important because the students were able to compare practice in two separate systems. The public defender was still representing parents in Hennepin and engaged with the students in that county.


Professor Woolman expanded the training component during the second year to focus more on concrete law.11 Professor Woolman was actively engaged in each case the students were handling. She developed a hearing-by-hearing guide for the students; required more in-court observation for students; and had students speak with judges and other stakeholders in the system before the students started handling cases to gain a more complex understanding of the cases.

The students also spent more time in class discussing the substantive law and Minnesota timelines governing child protection cases. Each student also participated in a mock initial client interview, review of a sample petition, and emergency protective care hearing. The goal was to better prepare students for jumping into the case at the initial hearing. However, on some level, part of the clinic experience is simply jumping in—with the safety net of a supervising attorney.

In discussing the classroom time for the clinic, third-year student Lucie O’Neill appreciated Justice Meyer’s role. Justice Meyer spoke to the class about what she liked to see from the bench and advocated for a “balanced” approach to child welfare. She emphasized for the students the need to protect parents’ rights while they are involved in the system.

Parent Partners

The clinic hired two Parent to Parent partners to work with the clients and students. Adding this program to the clinic represented a major step in achieving the goal of having a multidisciplinary program, one of the visions the board had at the end of the first year.

Larene Broome, the Parent to Parent coordinator, was involved with parent partner programs for seven years before joining the clinic. She and the other parent partner have been involved with four clients’ cases where their role largely focused on “mentoring and advocating” for clients. Broome shared that she is able to make it easier for the student attorneys with the social services aspect of the work. Her own life challenges have helped her understand the clients and “walk with them through each step” of the process. Being part of a legal clinic makes the job of supporting clients easier than when she worked for a social service agency.

As part of the legal team, Broome does not have to report each time a client “slips” and she feels this takes weight off the client. She believes parents should receive as many resources as possible and that the system should be more flexible. She wants to be part of a program that is working to change policy and practice to treat parents well. Broome is happy to be part of what she hopes will be a long-term program that teaches students to be specialists in the child welfare field.12

Lucie O’Neill, a third-year law student in the clinic who represented a mother in Hennepin County, found the parent partners helpful in her case. She described the first hearing she had in her case. The mother was “overwrought” and could not hear what O’Neill was telling her. The parent partners came to the rescue, working with the mother to get her to agree to visitation. They helped mediate between the client and the agency and made a true difference for the family.

Policy and Research

Professor Woolman and others at William Mitchell are working with Judy Nord to design the curriculum and deliver the training for all Minnesota parents’ attorneys, as newly mandated by the legislature. The program will take place in spring 2013. Additionally, Professor Woolman anticipates outlining a policy agenda for parents’ attorneys during 2013.

Promoting Quality Parent Representation

As the clinic began meeting its goal of providing top-notch representation for parents, while training lawyers for the future, Justice Meyer continued to believe in the goals in the Workgroup’s report. She wanted consistently high quality-representation for parents throughout Minnesota.

By educating the state legislature, Justice Meyer achieved another of her goals in late May 2012. At that time, the legislature passed a statute requiring court-appointed attorneys in child welfare cases to meet minimum qualifications set by the Judicial Council. Once the law was passed, the Judicial Council worked hard to develop the minimum requirements, effective June 1, 2013.

The statute requires an attorney who wishes to be appointed to represent parents to have either:

  • two years’ experience, including handling at least 10 cases; or
  • 18 hours of parent representation-specific training.

Alternatively, the attorney may be supervised by an attorney who qualifies for appointments under the first two options. Every attorney will also have three hours of training related to juvenile matters per year.

The CJI is charged with developing the required six-hour core skills training and offering the additional 12 hours that new attorneys must complete. As part of its plan for the future, William Mitchell, and the clinic in particular, hopes to play an active part developing and conducting these trainings.

Lessons Learned

Making lasting, systemic change for families takes time and effort by many people in a community. The child welfare stakeholders in Minnesota understood that and were willing to work together and try new things. They knew that not everything would work, but if they didn’t try, nothing would change. They also had strong leadership from the child welfare agency and the court who were invested in improving the lives of parents and children. Some keys to their success follow.

Include Different Perspectives

When the clinic advisory board was asked why such a multidisciplinary group of professionals would put their energy into this effort, the group emphasized the multidisciplinary nature of everything they’d done through the CJI. If they didn’t value different perspectives and work to get on the same page, nothing would get done.13

Overcome “Business as Usual”

Changing the way practice is done can be off-putting for the people doing the work. For example, in Ramsey County some agency social workers and county attorneys had to make adjustments to work with the clinic. Some county attorneys did not understand why they should be involved in “training the other side.”14 Some caseworkers felt the students were getting in the way of the workers’ relationships with their clients. Students expressed that they didn’t think caseworkers and attorneys were used to hearing the question “why” when they told a student attorney or clinic client that something couldn’t be done.15 Changing the mindset of “this is how we do things” is difficult. 

Garner Child Welfare Community Support

Despite the challenges, the clinic has had broad support in the child welfare community. Board member Jim Backstrom is the county attorney in Dakota County, the third largest county in Minnesota. Backstrom was on the 2008 workgroup and has been on the clinic board since it began. In his view, when the child welfare agency removes a child, the government must do the right thing for that family; part of the responsibility is ensuring the parents have quality representation.

The parent’s attorney can help the parent understand that they need to get assistance. The attorney can negotiate a positive plan for the family and help the case move in a timely way. Backstrom believes the clinic can help promote quality, uniform parent representation by providing training to attorneys across the state and preparing students to be strong advocates no matter which party they represent once they leave school.16

From the child’s attorney perspective, quality representation for parents helps their clients. “Kids want to go home. If there is nobody there to explain to parents what their rights are and to help them understand the process it’s much harder for that to happen. Parents’ attorneys can help make sure that parents have realistic and manageable case plans. That is so important. Understanding how important that is, and to get realistic and manageable case plans is so important. Parents are not adequately served when they don’t have information.”17

Investing in the Future

According to Judy Nord, Staff Attorney and Manager at the CJI, the court used $80,000 of its training dollars to support the clinic for its first two years. The court anticipates the clinic will become self-sufficient by the end of those two years. Nord explained that the court and the child welfare agency believe it is important to understand what parents need and then provide the parents with the advocacy to fulfill those needs. When the clinic was starting, many forces came together at the same time. “There was passion about the issue, dollars, and it was a rough time for attorneys.”18 Nord sees this clinic as an opportunity to increase training opportunities for lawyers and develop standards. As the clinic expands into more counties and judicial districts, it will demonstrate a standards-based model of representation.


With the goal of making the clinic self-sufficient, William Mitchell hired a half-time development director to raise funds. The development director works with local and national foundations on grants for the clinic. Board members are also working to raise funds. The “can do” attitude that Justice Meyer started this project with has spread through everyone involved.


Many people want to see the clinic expand beyond Ramsey and Hennepin Counties. This expansion will need to be done carefully. Linda Forman and Anne Gueinzius from the Children’s Law Center of Minnesota support the clinic and want to see the model spread, but they cautioned that they have seen many failed clinics because of weak supervision. They complimented Professor Woolman’s careful, hands-on approach with students. They worried that if the clinic spreads too far from William Mitchell, or takes on too many cases, the level of supervision will not be as high. The clinic, they believe, must be planful in how it handles cases after students have left the clinic and how it will expand.19

Policy, Practice and Research

In September 2012, Justice Meyer and her husband Bill Bieber created a
$1 million chair at William Mitchell. The Justice Helen M. Meyer Chair in Child Protection was awarded to Associate Dean for Academic Programs Nancy Ver Steegh. Dean Ver Steegh will focus on research, policy, and changing practice to improve outcomes for parents and children. The intent of creating the chair is to have someone work with the Child Protection Clinic and make the focus on child welfare a permanent area of study.

Stronger Parent Representation

By investing in students, William Mitchell and the Minnesota child welfare community have the opportunity to yield a high return on the investment. The clinic is providing quality representation for its clients, but more importantly for the system. Young lawyers are learning to be leaders in the system when they leave law school. The clinic can also play a role spreading high-quality representation throughout the state by developing and using practice standards, creating and providing training for practicing attorneys, and sharing the results of the ongoing data analysis of the clinic’s results. Spreading the multidisciplinary model throughout the state will hopefully lead to more positive outcomes for families.

Mimi Laver, JD, is the director of the National Project to Improve Representation for Parents Involved in the Child Welfare System at the ABA Center on Children and the Law. She has been with the Center for 15 years.


1. Thornton, Elizabeth and Betsy Gwin. “High Quality Legal Representation for Parents in Child Welfare Cases Results in Improved Outcomes for Families and Potential Cost Savings.” Family Law Quarterly 46, Spring 2012, 1.
2. Interview with Justice Helen Meyer, November 11, 2012.
3. Report of Children’s Justice Initiative Parent Legal Representation Workgroup to Minnesota Judicial Council, November 17, 2008.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Conversation with Professor Peter Knapp, Associate Dean Nancy Ver Steegh and Justice Helen Meyer, November 12, 2012.
7. William Mitchell College of Law Child Protection Clinic, Annual Report for May 17, 2011 to June 30, 2012.
8. Interview with Courtney Allensworth, November 12, 2012.
9. Mitchell Voices, Letter from Director. Issue I, Summer 2012, p. 1.
10. Interview with Lucie O’Neill, November 12, 2012.
11. Interview with Courtney Allensworth, November 12, 2012.
12. Interview with Larene Broome, November 12, 2012.
13. Child Protection Advisory Board Meeting, November 12, 2012.
14. Ibid.
15. Interview with Courtney Allensworth, November 12, 2012.
16. Interview with Jim Backstrom, Dakota County Attorney, November 12, 2012.
17. Interview with Linda Forman and Anne Gueinzius, Children’s Law Center, November 12, 2012.
18. Interview with Judy Nord, CJI Director, November 13, 2012.
19. Interview with Linda Forman and Anne Gueinzius, Children’s Law Center, November 12, 2012.