In many ways, the challenges of the child welfare field mirror those in the criminal justice system. Both disproportionately ensnare over-policed, underserved communities, especially people of color and those living in deep poverty.
The difference between those systems, explain East Bay Family Defenders co-founders Eliza Patten and Zabrina Aleguire, is one of gender. Women fill these courtrooms.
In September 2018, Patten and Aleguire launched East Bay Family Defenders with a team of 10 attorneys, a social worker and a peer advocate. It is the dream of two lawyers who came from the East Coast, trained to surround vulnerable parents with a needed support system.
The office continues its first year of operation as the field of parent representation enjoys significant tailwinds. A recent federal policy change has opened up new funds for indigent defense in child welfare court, and a new study has validated the impact of the approach taken by East Bay Family Defenders.
In a sunlit office, not far from the Alameda County courthouse in San Leandro, their holistic team forms a quilt of support for parents where systems have often failed them. Ninety percent of child welfare cases in California, note Patten and Aleguire, are the result of an alleged incident of neglect, and the charge is often rooted in a lack of money to afford housing, childcare or treatment.
“People in our country are blamed for being poor,” states Aleguire.
East Bay Family Defenders fights against that blame, advocating for a clearer picture of what the family has endured and necessary services they have gone without.
“We know from research that vigorous advocacy in the first three months of a case has the highest impact on avoiding or shortening the need for foster care placement,” explained Patten. But it is not just what they do in the courtroom that is different.
The cause of more and better legal support for parents scored a major victory at the end of 2018. Just before Christmas, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that for the first time, states could use federal child welfare entitlement dollars to help pay legal fees associated with parents and children in dependency court cases.
At the firm, families are paired with an interdisciplinary team to assist them in navigating their most trying moments and tackle the underlying roots. And each member of the team is critical.
“Social workers and advocates and attorneys are essential support for clients with complex issues … [They make] it more possible to make an impact as a lawyer, and bear the responsibility of supporting and helping reunify families,” Aleguire said.
The organization ensures their attorneys and advocates are trained and prepared to handle the work of defending parents in the child welfare system. This includes a focus on appropriate compensation to incentivize strong advocacy and a staffing model that involves supervision training.
Patten and Aleguire attended law school at New York University and served at the school’s Family Defense Clinic within a few years of each other. They both found a mentor in renowned family law and child welfare expert Marty Guggenheim, who helped build New York City’s model of interdisciplinary legal support. After separately practicing family representation on the East Coast, they both ended up relocating out west, finding a new home in Alameda County.
Once Aleguire also moved west, Guggenheim suggested she contact Patten, who had landed at Legal Services for Children in San Francisco. Meeting over lunch, Aleguire asked Patten whether there was a local family defense organization to join.
“Not yet,” Patten replied.
“Have you ever thought of starting one?” Aleguire asked.
“Not by myself,” said Patten.
Aleguire then joined Patten at Legal Services for Children. Many lunches later, they came across an opportunity to make their shared dream real when a contract opened up with Alameda County. With guidance from the Dependency Advocacy Center, a Santa Clara County-based interdisciplinary family defense legal services organization, they began to build relationships with agencies in Alameda County.
Serving their home county of Alameda was an easy decision. “We had heard … both at the community level and from community-based organizations, that the quality of representation in Alameda County was poor,” explains Patten.
Back in New York, the template for their work out west received a major boost from the research world. A study comparing clients assigned to interdisciplinary law offices with those routed to panel-appointed attorneys found that the former group had their children return from foster care four months faster on average.
Word of their launch got out quickly. One week before they opened their doors, they received a phone call. It was a woman participating in a program serving low-income mothers with substance abuse issues. Having lost one of her children to foster care, now pregnant and on the verge of losing her second, the mother was plagued with worry.
She told them her previous attorney was unpredictable and never reachable, filling the woman with more anxiety. After hearing that East Bay Family Defenders had set up shop, and that she would therefore be assigned to a new lawyer, the mother was determined to find out who this new attorney would be.
East Bay Family Defenders responded, providing their new client with a lawyer as well as a peer advocate who herself had experienced the trials of child welfare as a parent. Not only was the mother able to keep her newborn daughter in her care at the in-patient facility, but she is also on track to reunify with her toddler, previously on a path to adoption.
The organization faces systemic challenges it cannot resolve alone, states Patten. Caseloads for parent defenders are well in excess of 100 in Alameda County, stifling efforts for effective representation. Reducing the caseloads requires a substantial increase in state funding, and a heightened awareness of the impact of quality family representation, explains Patten.
“… We have a long way to go to get to our fully realized program,” she said. “We are committed to delivering … and we are just at the beginning.”
Ellie Dehghan is a freelance writer and the director of legal options counseling at Callisto.
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