Parent Defense Movement Warily Celebrates Momentum on Child Welfare Reform

Guggenheim Ortiz Bridges ABA
From left, speaking at the American Bar Association’s 2019 National Parent Representation Conference in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, last Thursday: Khiara Bridges, Boston University School of Law; Dinah Ortiz-Adames, Bronx Defenders; Martin Guggenheim, New York University. Photo: Claire Chiamulera

An emboldened parent defense movement convened at a Ritz-Carlton near Washington, D.C., last week, intent to capitalize on recent policy victories and public attention. The goal? To reduce the number of parents they believe are unnecessarily separated from their kids by the child welfare system.

“We work in a field in which those who only know it vicariously believe we are on the wrong side,” said one keynote speaker, Martin Guggenheim, a professor of law at New York University. “We work closely with parents who lose the most precious thing in the world [their children] and they lose it to a regime in which the people taking that away from them celebrate their victory.”

“But certainly, one good thing from the past year — our movement is building.”

It was the sixth biennial conference for lawyers who represent parents in America’s dependency courts, organized by the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law. The hundreds of attendees from dozens of states are court-appointed lawyers for low-income parents, who are subjected to a vastly disproportionate share of child welfare interventions. There are nearly 450,000 youth in foster care, and over 3.5 million children received a child protective services investigation in 2017, typically in response to a child neglect allegation as opposed to physical abuse, according to federal data.

Topping the list of recent positive developments, according to Guggenheim and other advocates in attendance: A federal policy change to allow Uncle Sam to reimburse as much as half of each state’s costs for parent and child legal representation in abuse and neglect cases. Guggenheim said the development was “worthy of our joy.”

The next hurdle for the movement, which has allied on this issue with the children’s defense bar, will be convincing states to take up the offer.

“I’m hoping this community can play a role in making sure we don’t just take money, but thoughtfully design programs to do this work,” added Guggenheim, who is a leading organizer and legal thinker in the field.

Thirty-nine states guarantee the right to counsel for accused parents in child welfare cases. But like their colleagues in indigent criminal defense and other realms of civil legal aide, parent lawyers almost always work under difficult conditions. Their pay is low and they receive little public recognition for litigating hundreds of cases at a time, all of them involving the highest stakes: a parent’s right to their child.

“During the most traumatizing time of their lives parents have felt alone, with no one to turn to including their attorneys, who most of the time were overburdened with cases and not enough time in the day to dedicate to one individual person,” said another keynote, Dinah Ortiz-Adames, who supervises a peer advocate program for accused parents with the New York City legal aid firm Bronx Defenders.

“My attorney never answered my calls, she couldn’t even remember the names of my children at court dates, and always advised me to do everything the caseworkers said, even if it was contrary to my beliefs,” Ortiz-Adames said, describing her own experience with a child welfare investigation.

Yet, as Ortiz-Adames and other attendees noted in conversations with The Chronicle of Social Change, the movement was buoyed by a raft of unusually sympathetic coverage of accused parents in national media last year. States like Colorado and Washington have also recently created or increased funding for offices that will coordinate indigent parent legal defense. The leaders of those offices attended the ABA conference, hosting standing room-only seminars on how they earned local support and implemented reforms. But the most frequent topic of conversation may have been the newly available federal funds for legal-related costs.

On December 19, an obscure federal government policy manual was quietly changed to say that states could claim legal aid for victimized children and accused parents as an administrative cost, eligible for reimbursement under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act. Previously, IV-E funds could be used to pay attorneys working for the government, but not for those representing kids and parents.

Leaders of the family defense movement (as its members prefer to be identified) hope states will use the funds to hire more lawyers to lower caseloads, or to provide a wider range of support services for their parent-clients.

“This is the tidal wave of the future, and the change means more [parents] could benefit from social workers and parent advocates,” said Mimi Laver, conference organizer and director of Legal Representation Projects at the ABA’s Center on Children and the Law.

David Kelly, a federal Children’s Bureau official and one of the architects of the Title IV-E policy change, was met with ovations by those in attendance at the end of the conference.

In another keynote speech, Khiara Bridges, associate dean for equity, justice and engagement at the Boston University School of Law, made the case for longer-term optimism, drawing parallels to the Civil Rights Movement. That movement, she said, was preceded by a world war and a cold war that created conditions for change; foreign powers highlighted Jim Crow laws to undermine America’s moral standing, which inspired many Americans “to turn a self-reflective, critical eye on the country’s own affairs,” she noted. Bridges expressed hope that the lingering pain of the Great Recession could gradually help a broader swath of Americans identify with poor families ensnared in the child welfare system.

“When it is accepted that the poor are not ‘the poor,’ but simply are ourselves without class privilege, and when it is accepted that ‘they’ are certainly no different from ‘us’ in terms of their moral characteristics, then our national culture would have undergone a significant transformation,” she said.

Some attendees saw a mixed blessing in recent national controversies skirting the child welfare field but never quite enveloping it. The Black Lives Matter movement highlighted racial inequity in criminal justice, encouraging major reforms, but has yet to confront the overrepresentation of black children in many states’ foster care systems. The Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the border sparked international uproar, but that resistance has yet to target a child welfare system that parent advocates see as comparable in its harms.

“Our commitment to avoiding the needless separation of children from families is a widely shared American value,” said Guggenheim. Yet, he continued in his keynote, “[We] still go to Congress to fix something, to progressive foundations, and say ‘can we fix this?’ And they won’t even engage in the conversation. We have our work cut out for us. But I’m still willing to say we had a good year.”

Ortiz-Adames agreed: “Parents are speaking out more and more, they’re saying, ‘We don’t need a service plan filled with parenting classes, anger management and mental health evaluations to prove we love our children’ … today is a new day.”

Vanita Taylor, one of the founders and longtime leaders of the child welfare division of Maryland’s Office of the Public Defender, appreciated the increasing presence of parent voices in the movement.

“These ladies aren’t just talking about their children being taken,” Taylor said of affected parents like Ortiz-Adames. “They talk about their response, here’s what worked for me and here’s what didn’t. It wasn’t just a condemnation of child welfare. They were very honest about what happened, and what the outcome was and what they’d like to see changed.”

The two-day ABA conference is supported by attendance fees and the Seattle-based Casey Family Programs, one of the largest child welfare foundations in the country.

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Michael Fitzgerald, New York Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Michael Fitzgerald, New York Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 104 Articles
New York Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at or follow on Twitter at @mchlftzgrld.