What Defines Success for Child Welfare Lawyers?

A year ago, I received an unexpected message on Facebook. It read: “Man we miss you how have u been. We were so devastated when u left.”

Of course my curiosity compelled me to respond immediately. Over the next hour, I reconnected with a former client – a kid who I represented over 15 year ago – who I hadn’t heard from in years.

In our conversation, he shared stories of what happened to him and his brothers, all of whom had been in foster care, during the years in which we had lost touch. He described abuse they experienced in their foster home. As a result of that abuse, they ran away and experienced homelessness. When found, they were forced into a group home. All three aged out of foster care. All three spent time in jail.

That night, after our conversation ended, one question pervaded my thoughts: Had I failed as their lawyer?

The kids had been unsafe. They did not achieve legal permanency. They left foster care without a home. These are precisely the types of outcomes that define failure for any child welfare system.

In fact, these are the types of measurements by which the child welfare community is now evaluating lawyers. Did your advocacy result in children remaining with their families? Did you prevent an unnecessary removal? Did you expedite permanency for the child? Did you keep children from re-entering foster care?

Recently, a major study found that institutional legal providers representing parents in New York City achieved at least some of these outcomes. So using those results and new avenues of federal funding, jurisdictions across the country are excitedly beginning to invest in legal representation.

But what if the New York study had come out differently? What if it concluded that lawyers didn’t affect child welfare outcomes? That lawyers didn’t prevent removals, expedite permanency or prevent kids from re-entering care? Would we then give up on lawyers and instead tolerate a system that did not provide lawyers to children and parents?

Or are we missing something?

Perhaps the most important thing lawyers do has little to do with whether they affect outcomes. Perhaps they do things like give people hope. Form relationships with those forgotten by the rest of society. Help those on the margins navigate the most difficult periods of their lives. Tell families that they have at least one person who will unconditionally advocate for them. Remind decision makers, in the words of Father Greg Boyle, that “our mistakes are not the measure of who we are.”

Don’t these things have intrinsic value? In other words, doing these things might not affect outcomes. But success can’t always be measured by outcomes.

So maybe I didn’t fail my clients. Maybe the fact that they reached out to me after a decade suggests I did something right. By investing my time to create a meaningful relationship with them, they knew that I would always remain connected to them.

It is one of the reasons I haven’t changed my cell phone number in nearly 20 years, so kids know where to reach me. When one of the brothers casually remarked that he tries to treat patients at a dental office he works at the way I treated him, I became further convinced that our work has meaning regardless of what metrics might suggest.

I get that showing measurable results is the path to more funding for quality parent counsel. But within our profession, here’s my new guiding principle. Any lawyer that achieves kinship with a client is a success – regardless of whatever outcomes they achieve. Because a world in which lawyers can help create relationships between those on the margins and those with authority is the world I want to help create.


 Vivek Sankaran is the director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University Michigan Law School. Follow him on Twitter at @vivekssankaran.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1212 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.