December 02, 2020

The Case for a Centralized Office for Legal Representation in Child Welfare Cases

By Mimi Laver and Cathy Krebs

Whether a parent or a child receives a lawyer in a child welfare case varies by state and sometimes even within a state. Some states provide a right to counsel to each child and parent in a child welfare proceeding, while others provide a right only to some children and parents.[1] A family’s outcomes should not depend on where they live. Research clearly shows that legal representation “positively impacts outcomes for parents and children and improves the overall operation of child welfare courts.” We therefore believe it is essential that all children and all parents have high-quality legal representation in these cases.

How Centralized Legal Offices Promote High-Quality Legal Representation

To assist in defining “high-quality” the Family Justice Initiative created the Attributes of High-Quality Legal Representation and emphasized the benefits of strong legal advocacy performed by a multidisciplinary legal team with support and oversight to ensure consistency across a jurisdiction. While models used to provide legal representation in child welfare cases vary greatly by state, some provide more consistency and quality than others.

Both of us have worked in many states across the country and we have found that legal representation of children and parents is strengthened when there is a centralized office. By centralized office, we include statewide offices and nonprofit law firms and/or organizations (sometimes known as institutional offices) that exist in a particular county or jurisdiction. We use the umbrella term “centralized office” to describe these legal providers. The benefits of a centralized office, no matter what the model is, include:

Ensure consistent representation

A centralized office ensures consistent representation across a state (or in some cases a local jurisdiction) by, for example:

  • connecting lawyers to each other and to the centralized office staff who can provide training;
  • providing technical assistance on individual cases;
  • giving access to multidisciplinary legal team members such as social workers and peer mentors as well as experts;
  • promoting consistency and continuity in trial and appellate practice; and
  • providing general oversight and accountability for the entire child welfare system.

Allow attorneys to focus on legal representation

The National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC) has weighed in on the value of a centralized law office in their Child Welfare Law Office Guidebook. NACC states:

The delivery of high-quality child welfare legal services requires a practice infrastructure which provides the attorney with the necessary time, compensation, and resources. The NACC believes, therefore, that one of the best mechanisms for delivery of high-quality legal services to children is an institutional structure that allows multiple attorneys to focus their attention on the representation of children in general and the representation of children in child welfare law proceedings in particular — in other words, a dedicated child welfare law office.

Leverage resources and funding to support lawyers’ work

A centralized office can focus on providing sufficient resources and support to ensure that lawyers can provide zealous representation to their child and parent clients. It provides the opportunity to communicate with the state legislature to share the importance of financial investment in the legal representation of children as well as leveraging opportunities to expand funding such as the drawing down of Title IV-E funding for parent and child representation. This financial investment can ensure low caseloads and adequate compensation for lawyers, as well as training and strong supervision, all of which we know are critical for high-quality legal representation.

Support systemic work

A centralized office also allows lawyers more opportunities to recognize and address systemic issues, for example, multiple safety concerns in a congregate care facility or a child welfare agency that removes children from their parents based on poverty rather than true neglect or abuse. Another example of the benefits of a centralized office in systemic work is when there is an emergency, such as a pandemic. Centralized office leaders can quickly work with other stakeholders to make policy and practice decisions that support families across an entire jurisdiction. This was clear at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when leaders from centralized offices in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles and other jurisdictions analyzed which families were close to reunification. As a result, at the agreement of all parties (and their lawyers), many children were reunified with their families rather than having their reunifications disrupted by the pandemic. The voices of children, parents, and their lawyers must be heard during such times and a central office can help lift up those voices.

Support multidisciplinary practice

In addition, a growing body of research shows multidisciplinary practice improves outcomes for clients. While it is possible to do within a variety of structures, it is easier within a centralized office to bring multidisciplinary partners like social workers, peer mentors, or education advocates onto legal teams as staff or through contracts. The Family Justice Initiative provides guidance on the benefits on this model, as well as examples of how it works in various offices around the country.

Ensure a diverse workforce

A centralized office can also help ensure a diverse workforce with low turnover. It can focus on recruitment of diverse lawyers as well provide a career path with sufficient compensation and benefits that can encourage retention in the field. In addition, in central offices that have a staff model, lawyers providing legal representation to indigent clients may qualify for school loan forgiveness.

For these reasons, we recommend centralized legal offices as a foundational piece of providing high-quality legal representation for children and parents in child welfare cases. This does not mean that lawyers who are solo practitioners are not doing strong work. Indeed, there are solo practitioners across the country who work tirelessly for their parent and child clients. But legal representation of children and parents in child welfare cases is complex, emotional work with incredibly high-stakes and the effectiveness of even the best lawyers is hindered when lawyers lack the support and resources of a centralized office.

How Centralized Legal Representation Offices Operate

A variety of centralized offices exist around the U.S. They illustrate the significant benefits of a centralized office and reflect different approaches and ways of operating. Funding for centralized offices comes from state legislative appropriations, city or local budgets, use of Title IV-E dollars and grants from local and national foundations. Models include:

Statewide legal offices that contract with lawyers to provide most representation:

  • Colorado has two centralized offices, the Office of the Child’s Representative and the Office of Respondent Parent Counsel. Each contract with lawyers throughout the state to provide direct representation respectively to children and parents in child welfare cases. The centralized offices set practice standards, provide litigation and appellate support, training, general support and oversight.

  • Massachusetts operates a similar model, however it has one centralized office that represents children and parents, the Committee for Public Counsel Services Children and Family Law Division (CPCS). Though it contracts with lawyers for the majority of the representation, that model is supplemented by staff offices where attorneys work with social workers. CPCS sets practice and training standards and requires new lawyers to work with mentors before representing clients.

  • Similarly, the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services has a statewide office that contracts with attorneys to represent children and parents. They are working to spread their high-quality Parent Children Representation Program from a few pilot counties to the rest of the state.

  • In Washington state, parents have a right to counsel in child welfare cases and that representation is provided by lawyers who are contracted by the Parents Representation Program of the Office of Public Defense.
  • Another commonality between these programs is they provide clients with a multidisciplinary team through contracts with not just lawyers, but also with social workers, peer mentors, and experts.

Statewide models that do not rely primarily on contracted lawyers:

  • Delaware has an Office of the Child Advocate that represents approximately one-third of children in the state with staff attorneys, one-third with contracted lawyers, and one-third with pro bono lawyers All lawyers are provided training and litigation support through this office.

  • North Carolina has a central office that supports parent lawyers throughout the state. North Carolina is a county-driven child welfare system and each county appoints or contracts its own parent attorneys. The Office of the Parent Defender has five staff members who work with the attorneys and courts throughout the state to ensure consistent, high-quality legal representation for all parents in abuse, neglect, dependency (A/N/D) and termination of parental rights (TPR) proceedings. This centralized office accomplishes its goal through training programs and resources, providing consultation to attorneys, and maintaining listservs. The office is also responsible for evaluating and assigning A/N/D and TPR appeals to qualified appellate attorneys including assistant parent defenders within the Office of the Parent Defender.
  • Utah’s statewide Office of Guardian ad Litem (GAL) employs 48 full-time lawyers. Though Utah has eight judicial districts in a state that is both large and rural, the Office of the GAL has 15 offices that provide staff representation to every child in a child welfare case. By using this statewide staff model, this office ensures low caseloads for lawyers and provides in-house training and quality supervision for every lawyer.

City, county, local jurisdiction-based models:

Many other centralized offices exist that are not statewide, but instead focus on a city, county, or other local jurisdiction. Those offices offer similar benefits to a statewide model. Many provide representation through multidisciplinary legal teams. Depending on the size and needs of the jurisdiction, the offices vary on the structure of their staff, but each office provides the oversight, training, and accountability offered by the statewide offices discussed above. The offices are also well positioned to engage in systemic reform efforts. Examples include:

California:

Pennsylvania:

New Mexico:

New York City:

Texas:

Washington, DC:

Conclusion

Centralized offices for legal representation for children and parents look different across the country, but they each serve the important purposes of adding support, training, accountability and resources for lawyers and their clients. Most significantly, these offices help to ensure all parents and children receive high-quality legal representation and improve outcomes for families.

Questions:

If your state or county does not yet have a centralized office, establishing such a capacity is an important step in ensuring high-quality legal representation for each parent and child in the child welfare system. We are happy to answer questions and help in any way. Please contact:

  • Cathy Krebs, Committee Director
    ABA Section of Litigation, Children’s Rights Litigation Committee
  • Mimi Laver, Director, Legal Representation
    ABA Center on Children and the Law

Links and Resources:

ABA standards for lawyers in child welfare cases, with suggestions for the oversight role of attorney managers:

For an overview of children’s law offices:

Many legal advocacy resources are available through the Family Justice Initiative.

National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel Status Map

 

The authors wish to thank Judge Doris Fransein (ret.), Susan Weiss, Elizabeth Thornton and Claire Chiamulera for their close review and thoughtful ideas.

Endnotes

[1] For an overview of the right to counsel provided in each state visit the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel