A startup shop aimed at helping states, counties and tribes completely rethink child safety and family support has added another big name to its roster: Jey Rajaraman, chief counsel and supervising attorney of Legal Services of New Jersey’s Family Representation Project, who has emerged as a leading national advocate for providing legal support to parents before a removal into foster care has occurred.
Rajaraman recently left Legal Services after 15 years for Family Integrity & Justice Works, a new arm of the consulting firm Public Knowledge started by two former leaders at the U.S. Children’s Bureau: Jerry Milner, the associate commissioner of the Bureau under former President Trump, and David Kelly, who remained with the agency after the Obama administration to serve as special assistant to Milner. Rajaraman joins the two of them and Christie Matlock, who was an independent contractor working for the Children’s Bureau.
“It was a hard decision to leave,” Rajaraman said in an interview with Youth Services Insider last week. “I have only ever litigated. I’m very close with some of the parents, we’ve become good friends.”
But the attorney said she was impressed with the impact Milner and Kelly had made on legal support while in government. The two men spearheaded a plan to vastly expand federal funds for parent counsel, an under-resourced corner of the child welfare system, and used the bully pulpit afforded by their positions to champion high-quality models of legal defense for families.
“I’ve seen the difference they made … and how it impacted trial work,” she said, “and I’ve been feeling like there has to be more I could do then just the day-to-day.”
Kelly said Rajaraman’s skills as a parent attorney are “unrivaled,” and that she will be invaluable to Family Integrity & Justice Works engagement with the legal community.
After graduating from Seton Hall Law School, Rajaraman clerked for former Essex County Judge Patricia Costello before joining the state-run public defenders office for child welfare-involved parents, an office that was created as part of the settlement of a class-action lawsuit over the state’s child welfare practices.
After two years, Rajaraman was hired to lead the growing family representation project at Legal Services of New Jersey. During her tenure, she greatly expanded the organization’s pre-petition work, helping parents to mitigate legal issues that might lead to a foster care removal if they went unaddressed.
The organization had always done some pre-petition representation with parents who called its hotline, or with families that just walked into an office. In 2018, that work was augmented by receiving direct referrals with the state’s Department of Children and Families. Area or county office directors could refer families to Legal Services if they felt some circumstance — a looming eviction, a domestic violence incident — might eventually lead to the removal of children, or at least an open dependency case.
Two days after the agency alerted regional leaders, Rajaraman said, “I got 30 referrals from Essex County,” home to New Jersey’s most populous city, Newark. Since that arrangement began, Rajaraman said, about 400 parents have been referred to Legal Services from DCF. In all of those cases, she said, removals into foster care were prevented.
Family Integrity & Justice Works was launched by Public Knowledge in the summer of 2021. The plan is to select only clients with an interest in going beyond traditional reform measures in child welfare to rethink processes and lower the reliance on out-of-home care.
“Internally, our child welfare leadership team was looking to demonstrate a new proof of concept to completely reimagine how we deal with families and children,” said Public Knowledge CEO Stacey Obrecht, in a July interview with Youth Services Insider.
The group’s first test will be Pulaski County, Arkansas, home to Little Rock, where entries to foster care have skyrocketed in the past two years and the entire frontline child workforce turned over in 2021.
Correction: Patricia Costello was originally identified as a former Hudson County judge in New Jersey; she served in that role in Essex County.