Federal agency: all parents/children should be represented in child welfare cases

01/17/2017, Miscellaneous, Abuse/Neglect/Dependency - Accused Parents

On Jan 17, 2017, the U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Services’ Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACF) issued a information memorandum to state governmental agencies managing child welfare proceedings that has strong language supporting universal provision of counsel to parents and children.   

Here is some of the best language (with the first sentence of each bolded for emphasis):


  • "There is consensus in the field that the rights at stake for parents and the complexity of legal proceedings in child welfare cases require all parents to have competent legal counsel. Parents’ attorneys protect parents’ rights and can be key problem solvers as counselors at law, helping parents understand their options, the best strategies for maintaining or regaining custody of their children and bringing cases to conclusion … Several studies and program evaluations examining legal representation in child welfare proceedings have identified competent legal representation as a key element in enhancing party perceptions of procedural justice. A small study in Mississippi compared the outcomes of child abuse and neglect cases for parents who did and did not have legal representation in two Mississippi counties. Parents who were represented by an attorney believed that they had a greater voice in determining case outcomes, and they understood the court process better than parents without attorneys. In addition, preliminary findings indicate a trend toward more positive outcomes in cases where parents were represented by an attorney: they attended court more often, stipulated to fewer allegations, and had their children placed in foster care less often.”


  • "While CAPTA allows for the appointment of an attorney and/or a court appointed special advocate (CASA), there is widespread agreement in the field that children require legal representation in child welfare proceedings.  This view is rooted in the reality that judicial proceedings are complex and that all parties, especially children, need an attorney to protect and advance their interests in court, provide legal counsel and help children understand the process and feel empowered. The confidential attorney-client privilege allows children to feel safe sharing information with attorneys that otherwise may go unvoiced."


  • "There is a growing body of empirical research linking early appointment of counsel (at or prior to a party’s initial appearance in court) and effective legal representation in child welfare proceedings to improved case planning, expedited permanency and cost savings to state government. Early appointment of counsel allows attorneys for parents and children to be involved from the very beginning of a case. Attorneys can contest removals, identify fit and willing relatives to serve as respite care providers, advocate for safety plans and identify resources, all of which may help prevent unnecessary removal and placement. Where removal is necessary attorneys for parents and children can be actively involved in case planning, helping to craft solutions that address their client’s needs and concerns and expediting reunification or other permanency goals."


  • "There is also evidence that legal representation helps ensure more thoughtful and effective case planning. A study conducted in Palm Beach Florida found that children’s attorneys practicing in compliance with the practice model resulted in more personally tailored and specific case plans and services, as well as expedited permanency.  Both parents’ attorneys and children’s attorneys can be helpful in addressing collateral legal issues that may leave families vulnerable, such as housing, employment, immigration, domestic violence, healthcare and public benefits issues -- one or any combination of which may contribute to bringing families into contact with the child welfare system. Such efforts may help prevent children from entering foster care or help children return home sooner.”


The studies relied on in this memo and mentioned above are the following: Evaluation of the QICChildRep Best Practices Model Training for Attorneys Representing Children in the Child Welfare System (Chapin Hall), Exploring Outcomes Related to Legal Representation for Parents Involved in Mississippi’s Juvenile Dependency System (Nat’l Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges; research snapshot from preliminary report), and Expediting Permanency: Legal Representation for Foster Children in Palm Beach County (Chapin Hall).