The Promise of Interdisciplinary Counsel in Colorado

Jill Cohen, Colorado Office of Respondent Parent Counsel. Photo: Cohen.

Caylee showed up for her first court date where the juvenile court reviewed the neglect allegations related to substance abuse filed against her by the Department of Human Services. The judge ordered a removal of Caylee’s newborn baby and placed the baby with a family friend in temporary kinship care.

The 27-year-old mother left court, heartbroken with handfuls of business cards – one for her court appointed lawyer, the baby’s guardian ad litem, the county caseworker. She made promises to call them all.

Months passed and none of those professionals saw or heard from Caylee. She missed court dates, meetings to discuss a treatment plan, and a substance abuse assessment she had agreed to in court. Caylee missed opportunities to visit her baby. In her absence, the professionals made decisions about Caylee’s life, schedule and future. Caylee was addicted to heroin, and this was not her first time navigating the court system.

As hard as it is to believe, this story has a happy ending. Caylee is a Colorado parent who benefited from a legal support system that surrounds parents with well-trained attorneys and “defense social workers.” This is Colorado’s new version of interdisciplinary parent representation. And, it is just getting started.

In 2016, the Office of Respondent Parents’ Counsel (ORPC) took oversight of indigent parent representation in Colorado child welfare cases. ORPC replaced decentralized oversight by judges to become the single clearinghouse to contract with qualified attorneys in all 64 Colorado counties. ORPC’s legislative mandate was clear: ensure high-quality legal representation for indigent parents. ORPC provides training, consultation and access to resources like a motion bank, forensic experts, investigators and social workers.

In July of 2017, ORPC started assigning social workers to parent defense teams as part of a pilot for interdisciplinary parent representation. ORPC based its program design on models in other states showing successful outcomes, such as New York and Washington. Social work assignments initially focused on high-risk child welfare cases in three judicial districts.

Here is how this model helped Caylee.

Per Colorado statute, if at least one child age 6 or younger is listed on a dependency and neglect petition, statute requires expedited timeframes to reach “permanency” in 12 months unless the court extends that timeframe for good cause. For parents like Caylee, who struggled with an addiction to heroin, this timeframe is an extraordinary pressure.

Caylee was assigned a defense social worker after the first court date because her lawyer practiced in a pilot jurisdiction where ORPC assigns social workers to high-risk cases as early as possible. As Caylee retreated from the view of professionals who had handed her business cards in court that day, a defense social worker spent months tracking her down and, finally, a family friend caring for the child shared a new cell phone number. Caylee wasn’t attending court dates or visiting her infant, but she had found a way to keep tabs on his well-being.

Caylee eventually agreed to meet. She was in a terrible state of withdrawal from heroin use. Caylee asked the social worker to take her to a crisis detox center. The social worker helped her fill out the paperwork and sat with her in the waiting room.

Caylee detoxed successfully. She called the defense social worker with frantic questions: How do I visit my son? Is it too late? Luckily for Caylee, it wasn’t too late, though the 12-month clock was ticking, and Caylee had a lot to accomplish. There was no time for another relapse or even a missed appointment with Caylee’s track record.

The concept of pairing quality counsel with specialized social workers and advocates has shown dramatic results elsewhere, and is already showing promise in Colorado. According to a program evaluation conducted by professors at Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Social Work Program, parents who are assigned a lawyer and a social worker have a 22 percent higher chance of family reunification when compared to similar high-risk cases in the same county. [Click here to read the program evaluation].

The families who received the interdisciplinary team approach saw their children spend fewer days in out of home care – a month shorter, on average.

In El Paso County, one of Colorado’s largest, children whose parents had interdisciplinary representation achieved reunification at over twice the rate of the state and county averages in 2017 and 2018. Though the initial program evaluation includes only closed case data for 207 children over two years, this new way of practicing is promising for Colorado’s families and reflects the positive outcomes that other states have seen.

Against the odds and because of Caylee’s perseverance, Caylee and her baby were reunified at case closure. Caylee needed support but she had been too ashamed to reach out to the professionals she met in the courtroom on that first day. With the support of an interdisciplinary team behind her, Caylee had the opportunity to engage in a challenging process before it was too late. Caylee needed a team to remind her that she was worth fighting for too.

We have a long way to go in Colorado. But we are working hard to ensure that a parent’s voice is paramount in our legal representation model. We soon plan to integrate parent advocates into our interdisciplinary legal teams. These advocates are parents who have successfully navigated the child welfare system themselves.

More parents like Caylee need access to an interdisciplinary team model to ensure their voice is heard, and not just in the highest risk cases within well-resourced jurisdictions. But, thanks to the hard work of our colleagues in other states and access to research on successful parent representation models, Colorado is on the right track.

Jill Cohen is the director of programs for the Colorado Office of Respondent Parent Counsel.

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