March 01, 2013

Why High Quality Parent Representation Matters

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.

Erin Sullivan Sutton is the Assistant Commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Children and Family Services division. She oversees programs and policies that promote economic stability, child safety and permanency, child care, child support and successful transition for immigrant families in the state of Minnesota. Her 29-year career has evolved from social work to policy reform and advocacy for families at the state and national levels. She is a past president of the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators and recently has been involved with a number of judicially led state task forces looking at improving legal representation for parents in the child welfare system. She is also an original member of the advisory board for the William Mitchell College of Law Child Protection Clinic.

In this interview, Sutton Sullivan explains why high quality representation for parents is a priority. 

What is the role of a parent’s attorney in child welfare cases?

Parents’ attorneys have a difficult job. They need to be zealous advocates for their clients. They also need to counsel their clients, give them good advice, and explain what the potential consequences of their action or inaction may be. Parents’ attorneys in child welfare cases must be much more than just zealous advocates. They have to build trust with their clients, who are going through a tremendously difficult situation. They need to know what services are available to families; they must understand and explain the timeframes for reunification and permanency.

Why should child welfare agency leaders care about quality legal representation for parents?

Ultimately, quality legal representation for parents helps children and families. The child welfare agency has a responsibility to keep children safely at home when possible and to help families access services to keep their children safe, if services are needed.  When children cannot safely remain at home and placement is necessary, that placement should be stable and as limited in time as possible. Quality legal representation for parents helps hold the child welfare agency accountable for its responsibilities. It helps the judges make good decisions and look at issues from not just the perspective of the child welfare agency. The amount of power and control in the hands of individual social workers on individual cases should not be unchecked.  There needs to be more than one decision maker weighing in on the process. I think the child welfare field now recognizes that children should not grow up in foster care. Good legal counsel for parents helps assure that doesn’t happen on a case-by- case basis.

Does quality legal representation for parents have an impact on safety, permanency, and well-being for children and families?

Yes, absolutely. As I said before, quality representation for parents helps assure that children are not unnecessarily placed in foster care. Many families involved with the child welfare system are dealing with poverty-related issues. Good parents’ attorneys help assure that we are not placing children into foster care because of family poverty. If a child truly cannot safely remain at home, parents’ attorneys can help parents understand what the safety issues are and can help parents address those issues—that leads to faster and more successful permanency and greater family well-being.

Why did you become involved in the William Mitchell College of Law Child Protection Clinic?

I was asked to be on the advisory committee for the clinic and was honored to be a part of it. Historically, parents in Minnesota have been represented by the public defender’s office. Many public defenders do a great job representing parents. But, sometimes, because of their caseloads, they don’t have the ability to meet and spend time with their clients in the counselor role. They can bring a criminal defense mindset to their representation, which doesn’t always help their clients. Helping clients access services and holding the child welfare agency accountable to prevent placement in the first instance is so important. Having lawyers well-trained in child welfare helps with this. I’m hoping the clinic will help create a greater number of lawyers who want to do this work.

What is your role with the advisory committee?

I try to support the work of the clinic. I recommended that parents who have been through the child welfare system be added to the committee. As we work to reform the child welfare system, we must hear from people who have been through the system. I have also been able to provide information to the committee about how the child welfare system in Minnesota operates, what our goals are, and resources available to families. 

What is the child welfare agency’s role in supporting quality legal representation for parents?

The child welfare agency should work with other child welfare stakeholders to provide and support quality training, as well as provide data and information. It’s important that we work with the broader child welfare community to really look at how we safely reduce the number of children in foster care and prevent children from growing up in foster care.

What are some barriers to high-quality legal representation for parents?

In Minnesota, one of the biggest barriers is resources—how much attorneys are paid and inconsistent pay from county to county. Another barrier is how we make this work attractive to attorneys. Representing parents is so important. How do we get attorneys to see that this is a great field to go into where you can make a real difference in the lives of families? That is part of the promise of the clinic. The support and cheerleading we get from Justice Meyer has also helped build momentum in the legal community around the importance of this work. 

Do you think quality legal representation for parents should be supported by federal funds?

The federal government should share the cost of state child welfare systems and not pay for just foster care. Part of that should include support for legal representation for parents. What we know about foster care has change over the years and federal policy has shifted significantly. Federal funding has not followed federal priorities, and it should.