After speaking at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas last week, I was asked what would be the very first step I would take to reform child welfare systems if I could. Of course I came up with two “first steps.” One is to change financial incentives that encourage needless foster care and discourage better alternatives.
The other is to provide high quality legal representation to parents who have lost or are at risk of losing their children to foster care. Such programs are few and far between, but where they exist they have proven to save money and, more important, to save children.
The most successful model typically teams lawyers with low caseloads with social workers who can do their own assessments and help prepare alternatives to the cookie-cutter-no-services “service plans” typically foisted upon families by child welfare agencies. For each case there also is a parent advocate, typically a parent who has been through the system herself or himself.
In Manhattan, for example, children represented using this model by the Center for Family Representation spend, on average, 73 percent less time in foster care than the average for foster children in New York City. In half the cases, children never enter care at all, but instead stay at home with the services their families need. The cost is from $4,000 to $6,600 per family – compared with anywhere from $18,000 and $49,000 per child to keep a child in foster care for a year in New York City.
They’ve been doing it in a similar manner for some time now in many counties in Washington State. The program, run by the Washington State Office of Public Defense, is so successful that even the lawyers who represent the state child welfare agency in these cases support it. They found that when parents were innocent, there was no reason to tear apart their families; and when the reasons for removal were legitimate, competent lawyers with low caseloads and social work support could show parents exactly what they needed to do to get their children back – and make sure the parents got the help to do it.
Between 2000 and 2003, of 144 cases in the program in which families were reunified, not one was brought back to court. “These children aren’t coming back,” a former Washington State Supreme Court Justice, Bobbie Bridge, told a former newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “and we do get them back when we make bad reunification decisions.”
And now, a new independent evaluation finds that the program shortens the time to reunification and also to adoption or guardianship when reunification really isn’t possible.