Last year, New York researchers determined that when parents have a child in foster care and are represented by teams of lawyers working in tandem with social workers and parent advocates, they were reunited with their child about four months sooner than those who were represented by a solo practitioner.
A new study, released late last month, delved into why the so-called interdisciplinary law office approach resulted in such a marked reduction in the time parent and child were separated. Experience has shown that the less time a child a parent and child are separated, the greater the chance of the family staying together permanently.
The same researchers who were involved in what they called the largest study of parent representation in such cases also conducted the follow-up. All the cases were in the family court system of New York City, which funds four interdisciplinary offices, staffed with a team of lawyers that consult each other regularly along with social workers and parent advocates who support the parents involved in these cases.
The follow-up study, in which the researchers interviewed parents, judges, social workers and attorneys who represent the children and the child welfare agency, identified four main reasons for the success of the interdisciplinary model of parent representation.
The first is that parents had access to uniformly high-quality representation marked by the lawyers working together to develop a legal theory of the case and a coherent strategy for pursuing the client’s interest in reuniting with the child. For example, the team might decide to push the court to grant more frequent parent visitation with the child.
Another important contributor to the success of the model, according to the team led by New York University law professor Martin Guggenheim, was that the lawyers called on parent advocates and social workers to attend to parents’ out-of-the-courtroom needs to boost their chances of success. For instance, social workers might advocate for parents at meetings with the child welfare agency or guide them through signing up for court-ordered programs. The staff can also include experts on criminal justice, housing and immigration issues, or professionals trained to cut through red tape.
Another key factor is that the interdisciplinary law offices were just as focused on making sure parents had broad legal representation during all-important meetings with child welfare workers as they were on showing up for court appearances. “This not only meant that parents are never alone at these conferences; the presence of an advocate shifts the dynamic of the conference and ensures that the parent’s voice will be heard,” according to the abstract published in SSRN on Aug. 19.
And the final quality of the model is that the interdisciplinary offices carefully attended to parents’ emotional well-being. Once child-parent separation occurs, the onus falls heavily on the parent to make changes that will satisfy the judge that reunification is in the child’s best interest. If the parent is not in a strong emotional state, meeting that burden will be that much harder.
The parent defender offices are funded through contracts with the city that can be renegotiated if the caseload exceeds an agreed-upon ceiling. This arrangement is seen as an improvement on the standard of paying a court-appointed solo practitioner who is paid $75 an hour with a case maximum, and typically has an overwhelming number of cases to manage.
Note: This article was updated on September 17.