What Comes Next for Interdisciplinary Parent Representation

As The Chronicle of Social Change reported earlier this month, a much-anticipated study of New York’s interdisciplinary law office (ILO) parent representation model has shown it significantly reduces the time children remain in foster care. Youth whose parents are represented by so-called parent defender offices spend about four fewer months in foster care than in cases represented by panel-appointed “solo practitioner” lawyers.

Click here to read all about the study and what is involved in the model itself. Following are a few of Youth Services Insider’s observations on what comes next.

Selling States, Merging Models

A 2016 meeting of leaders in child and parent representation, held in Denver and funded by Casey Family Programs, led to the establishment of the Family Justice Initiative (FJI) at the American Bar Association (ABA). The mission of FJI is to promote and help proliferate the use of quality counsel for families in child welfare cases.

FJI leaders made clear to The Chronicle that in their efforts to increase and improve child welfare counsel, the plan was to trumpet the effectiveness of interdisciplinary models like New York’s for adults, and the approach used for children by the Children’s Law Center in California.

In the New York City study, FJI has another major data point to convince states that investing in more than just legal representation pays dividends down the road in the form of less foster care and more permanency.

Lawyers often focus on due process and fairness, said Mimi Laver, director of legal representation at the ABA Center on Children and the Law. “But in order to advance this, we’re going to have to show child welfare outcomes.”

But few places in the country would have the budget and the critical mass of cases to incorporate the type of provider network that New York City has for parents. It funds four different nonprofits to cover thousands of cases in the city to the tune of about $32 million per year.

Mimi Laver, American Bar Association: “When you have a solo attorney, they can be supported with social workers and parent mentors, even if they are not a part of an office.” Photo: ABA.

Washington state’s brand of parent counsel, the Parent Representation Program, offers a deconstructed alternative to what he helped start in New York. PRP ensures that trained attorneys, with manageable caseloads, have access to expert witnesses and social workers – similar to the New York ILO, just not right down the hall.

PRP underwent an evaluation in 2011, headed by longtime child welfare researcher Mark Courtney, that found similar results to the New York study – less time in foster care, faster exits to permanency.

“Washington is a fabulous model, and is among our best, closest friends and allies” in the field of parent defense, said Martin Guggenheim, a New York University law professor and one of the chief architects of the New York City ILO model.

“In Washington, they could do all the different things” that a New York defender office does, said Laver. “But [in the study] Courtney couldn’t hone in on it being multidisciplinary, at the time. What they could show in New York – because the panel attorneys had other elements, but not the multidisciplinary aspect – is that the model impacts the representation. And states need to keep seeing that in a way they understand.”

So perhaps the best strategy would be to develop a manual that presented this as a unified model – call it the ILO-PRP – with variations adaptable for high-population, suburban and rural areas.

“When you have a solo attorney, they can be supported with social workers and parent mentors, even if they are not a part of an office,” Laver said. “We don’t need a whole big institutional office” in every area of the country.

The study also backs up the recent decision by the Trump administration to help states pay the legal fees of parents and children under Title IV-E, the entitlement program that accounts for most child welfare dollars going to states. Prior to a decision by the Trump administration in December, funds to represent families were prohibited but IV-E could be used to help pay lawyers for the state child welfare agencies.

This shift was done quietly, but has the potential to drive significant resources to an area of the system in need of it. While most states guarantee some level of indigent defense to parents and kids in child welfare courts, it may not be for the entirety of a case and there is often little in the way of quality control.

“Clear”-ed for Family First?

There is another pipeline of IV-E funds that Guggenheim has his eyes on.

“We are an evidence-based preventive service, and we should end up in that category,” Guggenheim said, when YSI asked him how he planned to operationalize this new research. “The federal and local governments should now invest in the right kind of family defense.”

The language had a familiar ring to it. Just last year, Congress approved and President Trump signed the Family First Prevention Services Act, a new law that opens up the IV-E entitlement to services aimed at preventing the use of foster care in some cases.

So is the plan to get ILO into the clearinghouse, Youth Services Insider asked Guggenheim?

“Yes,” he said.

Family First was passed in February of 2018, and will enable states to use IV-E funds for in-home parenting assistance, mental health services and substance abuse treatment. These services can be administered to any family where the child welfare agency declares the children to be at imminent risk of entering foster care.

One caveat: only services approved by the newly-minted Family First Clearinghouse will be eligible for funding. To find its way to the clearinghouse, the parent defender model will have to make it through a few hurdles, the first being relevance to the act’s allowable services. At present, there are three distinct types of front-end services that can be funded under the act: mental health interventions, substance abuse treatment and in-home parent skill-building.

Martin Guggenheim, NYU Law: “The federal and local governments should now invest in the right kind of family defense.” Photo: NYU.

The ILO model is not exactly any of those three, and yet it could serve to better connect and support parents with all three. So the question becomes whether the clearinghouse powers-that-be view a model that connects and supports as a service delivery. Obviously, Guggenheim would argue yes.

Another hurdle is this New York study counting toward evidence in support of inclusion on the clearinghouse. One hiccup here might be the presence of “unobserved confounders” – any factor, other than the intervention, that is possibly related to the outcome measures and is largely present either in the intervention or comparison group. If such confounders are noted in the research, the Family First Clearinghouse standards state that it could only be determined to have a “low causal rating.”

Studies with low causal rating are not considered toward rating in the clearinghouse. The New York study may or may not have issues on that count.

Researchers did note that the analysis finding less time spent in foster care was “sensitive to an unobserved confounder which would only need to minimally impact attorney assignment to nullify the findings.” The confounding issue was that the attorney assignment process changed in the later years of the study in such a way that it could have skewed the results.

However, the study notes that researchers isolated the years before the process changed, and still found a significant impact on time spent in foster care.

“Given that the results remained similar in this analysis, we conclude that the changes in assignment process are unlikely to have impacted the study’s findings,” the study said.

If clearinghouse reviewers accept that interpretation, the best this study could do will be to suggest moderate causal impact – it is only randomized control trials that can yield high causal connections, per the clearinghouse standards. So even if the study is accepted for consideration, more studies on interdisciplinary law models might be needed to establish a place on the clearinghouse, which the New York study authors seem to be keenly aware of.

“Future research from additional programs, sample groups and geographic areas may confirm the generalizability of these findings,” the study said. “Rigorous evaluations of these programs will help develop the field’s understanding of the impact of interdisciplinary family defense.” 

Moving Upstream

In New York City, the interdisciplinary offices are assigned at the initiation of a child welfare case. They might have a chance to influence whether a child enters foster care or not, but either way, the family is already court-involved.

Laver, of the American Bar Association, said she hopes for research attention on the crop of law clinics that work in the murkier space before a petition is filed in court – where parents afraid of becoming involved with the system can seek out help themselves, or where a child welfare agency might refer someone to ameliorate circumstances that could lead to system involvement.

Where New York’s offices focus on advocating for the best possible family outcomes in child welfare cases, these more upstream clinics focus on things like fighting evictions, dealing with old arrest warrants, securing a necessary restraining order, or helping secure housing.

The earliest of these ventures was the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, started in 2009 by Michigan Law School professors Vivek Sankaran and Don Duquette. The center received referrals for families that faced barriers to keeping their children, and for youth who were already in foster care.

The Detroit center’s fate really speaks to the need for more attention. It was funded through philanthropic grants, and for seven years, not one of its prevention clients had lost a child to foster care. But once the private funds stopped, the city did not absorb its cost, and it was shuttered.

Similar clinics have started to flourish under the management of New Jersey Legal Services and Iowa Legal Services, according to Laver.

“I hope there will be a follow-up study about the prevention of removal because of ancillary legal work – housing issues, domestic violence,” she said. “That is what Vivek built, and some other offices are doing that now, and that’s the real prevention work.”

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.