The argument for a greater guarantee of lawyers in dependency court has strong grounding in legal circles. It is virtually inarguable that the interests of justice are better served with counsel than without it.
But when it comes to child welfare outcomes, does it make kids safer, more stable? The body of research is limited. Both factions – those championing child counsel, and those for parental representation – each have one study they can point to as firm evidence.
When it comes to children, the Chicago-based research and evaluation organization Chapin Hall published a report out of West Palm Beach County, Florida, that attempted to isolate the impact of the Legal Aid Foster Children’s Project (FCP), which was providing continuous representation to about 350 children.
The report found that when compared to youth who were not provided legal counsel, FCP clients found a permanent home at much higher rates. This was largely attributable to increases in the number of youth for whom adoptions and guardianships were finalized. Importantly, those gains did not coincide with a decrease in the number of children who were reunified with their parents.
Not incidentally, the study also found that the legal support actually saved the county money.
In 2011, Partners for Our Children, a research and policy organization, released a study of Washington state’s Parent Representation Program (PRP). The research team, led by Mark Courtney, compared regions of the state covered by PRP with regions that had not implemented the program.
The study found that, all else being equal, the exit rate to reunification was 11 percent higher in PRP-covered counties. Interestingly, the rate of adoptions and guardianships were significantly higher in PRP areas: 83 percent higher for adoption, 102 percent higher for guardianships.
The difference in reunification may appear small next to the other metrics, but the authors point out that “the decrease in time to reunification affects more children because reunification is the most common outcome for children.”
As of July 2018, PRP was being used in every county in Washington.
That study has served as the strongest proof-of-concept for parent advocates. But several people that The Chronicle of Social Change spoke with for this article believe that a soon-to-be-released report on New York City’s network of legal assistance providers, funded by Casey Family Programs, will show demonstrable impact. That report is expected to be released in the next few months.
“I’m really hopeful about that study,” said Mimi Laver, director of legal representation at the ABA Center on Children and the Law.