Multidisciplinary Legal Practice and Representation in Specialized Courts
Another key component of staffing is multidisciplinary legal representation, where the attorney works with other team members such as a social worker and a peer advocate (for youth) or parent advocate (for parent clients). Multidisciplinary models increase the legal services provider’s ability to meet the out-of-court case needs of children and families. Funding changes for child and parent legal representation affected some legal service providers’ ability to complement the attorney role with multidisciplinary partners to best serve client interests and needs.
Funding allocations affected multidisciplinary legal practice in the sites. In the increased funding site, for example, added funding helped the children’s legal services provider hire additional investigators (i.e., social workers for clients) and paralegals as part of the legal team, which allowed for greater client contact. Even with these increases, however, some still noted that not enough social workers who work with attorneys were available. While the ability to provide more specialized attorneys and supports for children as well as social workers to see some child clients in their homes improved, there was still not enough time to support clients and meet children’s needs. In contrast, a legal services provider in one of the sites with decreased funding wanted to establish a multidisciplinary practice but could not due to funding limitations.
A children’s legal services provider in the site with increased funding uses a multidisciplinary model in specialized courts, including treatment teams, peer advocates, mental health professionals, and special education attorneys who work with clients. Collaborative or specialized courts serve specific populations, including nonminor dependents, victims of commercial sexual exploitation, parents with substance use disorders, and dually involved youth, and can also affect staffing and caseload/workload issues, especially if attorneys in the specialized courts have lower caseloads.
High-Quality Legal Representation Tasks
Funding changes affected attorneys’ ability to devote time to the activities that comprise high-quality legal representation. Attorneys were asked if they had enough time to perform specific tasks associated with high-quality representation, such as out-of-court advocacy, building strong relationships with counsel for other parties, understanding any related litigation involving their clients, understanding what services or assessments their clients need to complete, visiting with clients outside of court, or attending case-planning meetings.
Responses varied across sites, but most parents’ counsel reported they lacked enough time to investigate and plan for contested hearings, understand what assessments or services their clients need, understand related litigation involving their client, visit their client outside court, develop a strong relationship with agency counsel, and attend case-planning meetings. Children’s counsel across all three sites similarly identified spending time outside court learning about the case, investigating and preparing for contested hearings, understanding what services or assessments their clients need to complete, and attending case-planning meetings as tasks they lacked time to perform.
How to use this information to advocate for parent and child counsel funding
Use the California assessment to explain:
- the impact of compensation on recruitment and retention of counsel, which leads to more consistency in representation and greater ability to keep the case moving without unnecessary scheduling delays, an advantage for all parties and the court.
- how decreases in caseload per attorney can help ensure attorneys meet with their child and parent clients more regularly, identify critical needs, build trust and develop stronger relationships with other counsel on the case to lead to better outcomes.
- how increases in funding can help provide greater access to multidisciplinary models of legal representation that involve an attorney, social worker, and peer advocate on the client’s team. These models have been shown to significantly improve case outcomes and time to permanency for children.
- how decreases in funding can lead to increased caseload as well as decreased retention and consistency in representation with corresponding delays and disruptions in the court process.
2. In addition to attorney funding, other child welfare system factors affect the quality of child and parent legal representation.
Changes that directly affect attorney advocacy include:
- A child welfare agency’s approach to filing petitions. Changes in a child welfare agency’s approach to filing petitions only in cases presenting the greatest risk to child safety can reduce total caseload numbers per attorney. The change can also affect the complexity of cases coming before the court, thereby increasing the attorney’s workload per case even as the total number of cases that attorney handles goes down.
- A child or parent client’s ability to access services as part of a case plan. Unlike other legal systems in which attorney advocacy hinges on representing a client relating to allegations about prior facts, in child welfare cases attorney advocacy also requires understanding how clients (child and parent) are doing in real time. For parent clients, it requires knowing how well the parent is following the case plan and accessing required services. Service-related challenges to attorneys’ ability to advocate for their clients’ needs, regularly see their clients, perform out-of-court work, and manage their workloads may include:
- Services not paid for by the child welfare agency that clients cannot otherwise afford or access.
- Lack of co-located services and limited facilities at the courthouse, which may also affect accessibility.
- Difficulty meeting mental health, education, and trauma-related service needs of children and families.
- Insufficient services requiring placing children outside the county so higher-need services can be provided.
- Court funding and staffing. Changes to court funding and staffing affect factors that shape representation quality because court backlogs limit attorney time in and out of court. Both influences can alleviate or add to workloads related to time per case. Judges from multiple sites said changes in dependency counsel funding did not align with the court’s needs and resources. Therefore, increases in funding for counsel did not necessarily improve the court’s ability to move cases forward, despite having enough attorneys to staff the court or the ability of supervisors to cover hearings. A decrease in dependency counsel funding combined with insufficient court resources also had a negative impact.
How to use this information to advocate for high-quality legal representation
You can use the California assessment to explain:
- how agency petition filing practices can affect the total attorney caseload that parent and child counsel may handle and their workload per case, which may increase when caseloads go down if an agency files petitions on more complex and difficult cases but supports families to resolve other cases outside the legal context.
- how court funding and structures directly affect case processing and efficient use of attorney and client time waiting for hearings. This is an especially relevant now when many courts across the country have transitioned to remote hearings for many cases.
- that the availability and accessibility of services for clients affects high-quality legal representation because access to services often directly bears on how the case progresses and the parent and child’s ability to reunify or reach other permanency outcomes.
3. Factors outside the child welfare system also affected the quality of legal representation available to children and parents in the sites studied.
For example, homelessness and poverty were regularly reported as significant challenges for effective legal representation because factors such as unstable housing, lack of access to affordable transportation, or a rural location made it difficult to meet with clients and ensure they appeared in court.
Homelessness, poverty for youth and their families, and immigration status were significant challenges in all three sites. Poverty affects clients’ ability to pay for housing, services, and transportation. Lack of housing can prevent reunification and limit parent counsel from meeting with or communicating with their clients, while lack of personal or public transportation can make it hard to attend hearings or services. Courthouse location, court accessibility for attorneys and families, and time for attorneys to meet clients before hearings were challenges in each site.
How to use this information to advocate for high-quality legal representation by addressing outside factors that affect client advocacy
Use the California assessment to explain the connection between high-quality legal representation and potential influences that exist outside the context of child welfare that can affect attorneys’ ability to meet with and support parent and child clients, including:
- Transportation limitations for clients.
- Housing access and stability for clients.
- Challenges in cases involving immigration and child welfare law.
Understand and address these influences through advocacy, legislative action, and increased awareness so that supports for children and families can increase their ability to meaningfully engage in services, attend meetings with counsel, and successfully reunify and achieve permanency.
How to use this information to advocate for high-quality representation through improved data management systems
Collecting data for this assessment revealed the need for more robust data in each site to track representation quality. High data quality contributes to consistent results, reliable data, and the ability to easily interpret data. Use the California assessment to advocate for improved and refined data management systems to track important variables that better reflect the quality of legal representation and case functioning generally. Advocate for increased and adequate funding for child and parent dependency counsel with data from improved data management systems. By increasing use of robust data to study and improve practice, the quality of legal representation can be better measured and linked with outcomes for children and families.
This assessment presents important considerations when investing in legal representation to better support children and families in the child welfare system. Complementing existing research showing how high-quality representation improves outcomes for children and families, this assessment provides an opportunity for jurisdictions to carefully consider how to invest and allocate attorney funding to increase the quality of legal representation to best serve children and parents and for practitioners to use the findings as a tool in their advocacy.
Connecting back to the first finding, the best way to reduce caseloads is to have fewer families in our systems, and the only way to have fewer families in our systems is to either not bring them in to begin with, which is the child welfare policy piece, and the second best way to have fewer families in our system is to move them in and out efficiently and to provide them with the services they need.
– Leslie Starr Heimov, Executive Director, Children’s Law Center of California
Eva J. Klain, JD, director of the health program at the ABA Center on Children and the Law, directed the California assessment of funding changes project.
The call-out quotes in this article were drawn from a webinar introducing the funding assessment report findings and significance to California child welfare legal professionals on July 15, 2020.