Susan M. Buckholz, Esq: When an Attorney’s Best Efforts are Not Enough: The Multidisciplinary Approach to Parent Representation

By Susan M. Buckholz, Esq.

“Parents in the child welfare system tend to be disenfranchised; they are used to not having a voice and can be easily intimidated by the child welfare power structure. They need someone to stand up for them. When they have a strong voice in the process, the system works better for everyone.” Marc Cherne, Director, Allegheny County, Department of Human Services.

Few events in the life of a family are more traumatic than the removal from the home of one or more of the children in that family. The causes, which can vary widely from case to case, matter not in this regard, as the vast majority of parents are doing the best that they can with what they have to raise their children safely and appropriately. Removal of one’s child brings a parent into a close and fairly undeniable encounter with his or her own failures, as a person and as a parent.
My twenty-two years in the family court system, first as a guardian ad litem and then as a contract attorney in juvenile court, underscore for me the truth in Mr. Cherna’s words set out above. I have rarely worked with a family who has had a positive experience with “the system” prior to the removal of their children, coming as many of them do from impoverished and/or disadvantaged backgrounds. Several of my clients have spoken with true anguish about the failure of the state to protect them during their childhoods, when they endured abuse and/or neglect that they believe far out-shadows anything that happened to their children. The grief over their own losses, coupled with the shame of their parenting failures, can be paralyzing.
So, it is not surprising to me that one of the hardest conundrums facing parents and their attorneys in these matters is the forging of a working relationship with the same agency that removed the children from the family home in the first place. A parent’s reasoning is not hard to follow: if the worker assigned to help you get your kids back works for the same agency that took the kids in the first place, that worker either:

  • Must already think you are a terrible parent, so why would that person work with you to regain custody of your children?
    and/or
  • Must already think that you are a terrible parent, so why would you tell the state workers anything when they will only use that new information against you, if they can, to further “protect” your children from you?

Unfortunately, without a strong connection to a sympathetic and experienced case worker, many parents have no realistic chance to regain custody of their children after a finding that the children have been neglected or abused in their family of origin. The needs are great, the system complicated and cumbersome, the resources not always linked together in a user-friendy fashion.
As indispensable as parents’ attorneys are in these cases (contrary legislation in some less enlightened states notwithstanding), our best efforts are not often sufficient to meet the needs of parents trying to regain custody of their children from the state. Certainly, we can protect their legal rights and ensure that they are heard and respected in the courtroom while receiving a fair opportunity to present their case to the court. However, the courtroom portion of these cases, while certainly important, is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Without diminishing the importance of competent legal counsel, I would respectfully argue that a parent must also have access to a knowledgeable, trusted, experienced caseworker who will help them to find and engage in the services that the court has ordered them to complete before their children may return home, without the psychological mind-bending too often experienced by parents who have only the state social worker to help them.
Several organizations, around the country and in the great state of Vermont, have taken this notion to heart and are attempting to change the way in which we provide services to parents in CHINS/dependency cases. One of the earliest examples of this multi-disciplinary approach is the Center for Family Representation (“CFR”), which was founded in 2002 by attomey Sue Jacobs and others who had been advocates for children in the New York City dependency courts and saw firsthand how poor families were tom apart. As lawyers and social workers, they set out to change the paradigm for legal services provided to poor families. As noted on their website, they knew that, in the simple words of former Annie E. Casey Foundation president Douglas Nelson, “Children do better when their parents do better.”
CFR provides each client with a lawyer/social worker/parent advocate team who work together across three levels to ensure that the client has the best possible chance to regain custody:

  • in the courtroom by providing zealous advocacy on the legal issues;
  • in the community by ensuring that all possible programming and support is secured and that obstacles such as transportation, child care for children still in the home, etc.. are overcome so that services can be accessed in a timely manner; and
  • in the home by including a member of the team who has been through the process of losing custody of a child him or herself and who can provide true empathy and support to the client while going through the juvenile court process.

I visited CFR in 2008 with a Vermont team looking to implement this program in our juvenile court system. We attended dependency hearings, spoke with judges, and met with Legal Aid attorneys who represent children in these matters, and others involved in CFR. Uniformly, we heard praise for the organization and the model that they had implemented, and the importance of their work in improving the lives of children who were before the court.
Soon after that visit, the Vermont Parents Representation Center, Inc. (“VPRC”) was formed to try to implement the team model of parent representation in our state. Since 2009:
VPRC’s Family Intervention Team (FIT) model — including an attorney, a social worker, and a peer navigator (a parent who has had direct experience with the child protection/foster care system} — is intended to represent and support parents at risk of experiencing the placement of their children into state custody and out-of-home care (2)
VPRC’s application of the team model in our rural state is one of the first, if not the first attempt to bring the approach to otherthan an urban area. With much too limited funding, VPRC has supported some very positive outcomes for families who were working largely unaided to keep their families intact.
At approximately the same time, the Vermont Defender General instituted a program to make social work services available statewide to parent clients, initially on a limited basis. The program started slowly in Chittenden County and has since been rolled out to several other Vermont counties, using private social workers who are hired on a case-by-case basis where deemed appropriate. According to Anna Saxman, Deputy Defender General who oversees the program, social worker services are available currently in Chittenden. Franklin. Orleans. Caledonia. Rutland, Bennington, and Windham counties and she hopes that providers will be identified to work in the other Vermont counties very soon. She is especially pleased with the work being done in this program with kids in the Truancy Project in Chittenden, where children have been spared the trauma of entering state custody because of the social work intervention afforded by the program.
Other organizations use this model, such as The Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, a project of the University of Michigan Law School that uses the multi-disciplinary team approach to keep children out of state custody or, failing that, to make their time in state custody as short as possible. As in New YorkCity, each client is assigned a lawyer, social worker, and peer navigator. By all available evidence, the utilization of a team approach in the representation of parents in juvenile court, as described above, has improved the lives of children and their families who are involved in the juvenile court system. However, the expansion of these programs has been hampered by limited funding. If the notion of making children’s lives better, safer and less fractured is not enough to motivate us to make long-term investment in this sensible approach, I can only hope that an economic analysis may win the day. The multidisciplinary team model has been tried and proven in several venues and, by reducing the time that children spend in state custody, has actually saved the government a lot of money. By reinvesting those unspent dollars in the broader implementation of this model, the savings would be multiplied. I’d take that result, either as the intended outcome or unintended byproduct, if anyone has the solution to how we convince funders to support the expansion of these programs for the good of our families and communities. (3)
(I) CHILD LAWPRACTICE ONLINE, vol. 31, no. 8, p. 11, at www.childlawpractice.org
(2) “What We Do,” at www.vtprc.org/what-we-do
(3) Online resources for additional information:
Center for Family Representation, at www.cfrny.org
Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, at www.law.umich.edu/centersandprograms
Vermont Parent Representation Center, Inc., at www.vtprc.orq/what-we-do
Washington Office of Public Defender Parent Representation Services, at www.opd.wa.gov/PRP-home.htm
Susan M. Buckholz, Esq., is an attorney and mediator in private practice in Quechee, Vermont. She serves as the parent attorney representative on the Vermont Supreme Court’s Justice for Children Task Force.


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