June is National Reunification Month. A time when the child welfare community celebrates families who overcome great obstacles to be together. This year, there likely will be many fewer family reunifications to celebrate. The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted our nation’s child welfare system, which in the best of times struggles to reunite the families it is tasked with helping.
But states and counties that have come to rely on interdisciplinary legal representation – a model that includes social workers and peer advocates working alongside attorneys to fight for parents and children – have overcome the new barriers imposed by the pandemic to help families reunify.
The pandemic is reinforcing what we already know – access to a high-quality legal representation team can be the difference between traumatic and prolonged family separation and families receiving the support they need to keep their children safe at home.
Sometimes, simple, concrete help can be the difference between foster care placement and family unity. For example, in Marin County, California, a social worker who is part of one parent’s legal representation team told us she was able to prevent a child’s removal by helping the parent make a chart breaking down child welfare agency requirements into simple bullet points that the parent could post and track.
This small intervention moved a family from imminent family separation to no longer at risk of removal. Social workers and peer advocates who are part of the children’s interdisciplinary legal representation team in Los Angeles similarly have said they checked in on clients, dropped off care packages, and provided caregivers with resources to help children and their parents stay connected despite shelter-in-place orders.
In both Santa Clara and Alameda counties, social workers serving on children’s legal teams have helped caregivers facilitate successful virtual contact between parents and children and have helped attorneys meaningfully connect with clients when they cannot meet in person. In Philadelphia, social workers who are part of the parents’ legal team have worked with parents to resolve housing and Wi-Fi issues that were preventing virtual contact and impeding reunification.
With court hearings cancelled, out-of-court advocacy by attorneys has been critical to facilitating family reunification. Attorneys for parents and children in Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia have been meeting outside of court and hammering out agreements for children to return home. In California, hundreds of families have been reunified because of this targeted out-of-court collaboration among the child welfare agency and parents’ and children’s attorneys. Taking negotiated agreements to court, or demanding an opportunity to litigate these issues when parties cannot agree, has helped prevent families from waiting in limbo while courts struggle with when and how to reopen more broadly.
Legal teams for parents and children also have advocated for fair policies and processes during the pandemic. Children’s legal representation offices in California pushed state policymakers to extend support for young adults aging out of foster care and have been on the forefront of pushing for safe in-person visitation for families. Washington’s Office of Public Defense, which provides oversight for parent representation in the state, worked closely with the child welfare agency to revise relative placement procedures so children could live with family during the crisis. In Philadelphia, Community Legal Services drafted a sample order adopted by the supervising judge suspending the timeline set by the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which requires termination of parental rights after a a child has been in foster care for a year in many cases. This will help prevent families from being permanently separated if they cannot access needed services or visits because of the pandemic.
These examples, and others like them, are not uncommon in jurisdictions that have invested public funds to support quality legal representation for families. Evaluations of parent representation programs in Washington and New York show that interdisciplinary teams help families reunite more quickly without compromising child safety. Unfortunately many child welfare attorneys spend most of their time putting out fires and chasing down emergencies. Under funding, crushing caseloads, little to no oversight, and lack of access to an interdisciplinary team, dramatically limit parents’ and children’s attorneys’ capacity to provide clients with the support they need to put their families back together.
To address these challenges, federal Title IV-E funding is now available to help states invest in high-quality legal representation, including costs associated with social workers, investigators and peer partners. Some states are moving to take advantage of this critical support for families, but not nearly enough. With federal investment on the table, there is no excuse for communities to continue to neglect those families who need us most right now.
Child welfare leaders and advocates should take steps to invest in an intervention proven to work in supporting state and community efforts to reunite children with their parents – high-quality legal representation for families.
As with this pandemic, taking needed measures to help now, can prevent a spike in suffering and loss in the future.
Elizabeth Thornton is an attorney and consultant for the Family Justice Initiative, a national collaborative focused on ensuring every parent and every child has high-quality legal representation. Kathleen Creamer is the managing attorney of the Family Advocacy Unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. Cathy Krebs is the Committee Director of the American Bar Association Section of Litigation Children’s Rights Litigation Committee.