The stakes are high for parents accused of child abuse or neglect.
There are tight timelines to disprove allegations of maltreatment or to convince a judge that deeply entrenched problems at home can be quickly remedied — from substance use disorder to mental illness, domestic violence and deep poverty that threatens proper care of a child.
A competent legal defense can make all the difference in family court cases where social workers’ reports can result in the permanent separation of parent and child.
But in these family court cases, traditional lawyering may not be enough, say a growing number of parent attorneys nationwide.
New York’s Monroe County is the second upstate county to adopt a “holistic, interdisciplinary” advocacy model by creating a family defense unit within the local public defender’s office. Under a state-funded grant, the office now relies on a team approach, matching clients with an attorney, a caseworker and a parent advocate. In some cases, the team helps even before local residents end up in court, when allegations of abuse or neglect are still being investigated by Child Protective Services.
Robert Turner, the lead attorney with the Monroe County Family Defense Unit, called the model “a game-changer.”
“It’s been invaluable to have them on board and for our clients to be able to have someone to communicate with, someone to reach out to, someone to lean on, someone to confide in,” he said of the lawyers’ partners.
The support has been offered to low-income parents and guardians in the Finger Lakes Region since late last year. It’s part of a growing movement state and nationwide to offer support beyond just an attorney in these civil cases that typically involve deep societal and personal struggles in households that are mostly low-income and disproportionately Black and brown.
The Center for Family Representation was one of the first to incorporate the model into family court cases back in the early 2000s. The organization, which is also responsible for training the public defenders in Rochester, points to the benefits of such office overhauls. A study published in 2019 in a prominent child welfare journal found that New York City children whose parents were represented by interdisciplinary law offices that included lawyers, social workers and advocates spent roughly four fewer months in foster care than children whose parents were represented by a single attorney.
The family defense model was pioneered in New York City by the Center for Family Representation and is now expanding through funding provided by the Office of Indigent Legal Services to various upstate counties. Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, based in Westchester County, was the first to establish the program upstate in 2020, and in June of last year, a $2.6 million grant allowed Monroe County to hire four caseworkers, a paralegal, and a parent advocate to assist attorneys. The grant funding allows three attorneys and a supervisor to carry 170 clients per year, but they can take on more clients if needed.
“It’s been invaluable to have them on board and for our clients to be able to have someone to communicate with, someone to reach out to, someone to lean on, someone to confide in.”— Robert Turner, Monroe County Family Defense Unit
This family defense model was endorsed by the New York State Unified Court System’s Commission on Parental Legal Representation, a panel established by former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore in 2018 “to ensure the future delivery of quality, cost-effective parental representation.” A statewide network of interdisciplinary law offices was among the commission’s recommendations.
“Most often, children are removed due to issues related to poverty,” said the center’s litigation supervisor Jennifer Feinberg. “Social work support is essential to family defense teams because social workers can work with families to identify their most essential needs and connect them to resources in the community that can keep families safely together without further family policing involvement.”
‘I wanted to give up.’
Last year there were 6,939 reports of child maltreatment in Monroe County, according to state data, roughly 20% of which were deemed credible. Black, Latino and mixed-race children comprise the majority of foster children, in percentages far greater than they appear in the general population.
Joelisa Brewer of Rochester, a 33-year-old mother of four, is among the Black parents who have been caught up in the child welfare system.
In contrast with how her case began — with the support of a sole attorney— two months after her kids were taken into foster care last year, the Monroe County public defender’s office added caseworker Savannah Spencer to her defense team. The extra support made all the difference, she said.
Her case began while Brewer was out of state in August 2022 looking for housing closer to relatives, she said, when someone called CPS to report that her children were not being properly cared for by her and by the children’s father. When an investigator appeared at the door while she was out of town and the kids were with their father, CPS determined the apartment was in poor condition and removed the children.
Next, Monroe County child welfare workers placed her younger children, then 1 and 3, in one home, and her older kids 4 and 6, in another, Brewer said. The out-of-home placements lasted from last August until January — a long and torturous period for the family that compounded the parents’ existing struggles.
“It was the worst four months of my life. I wanted to give up,” Brewer said. “I wanted to quit because my kids are my everything. Without them, I’m nothing.”
Brewer conceded the lead-exposed apartment had numerous code violations and “really needed repair.” The living room floor was tattered and one bedroom was uninhabitable due to fire damage, she said. But getting her kids back was a tall order for this low-income mom. She had to move into a new apartment, take parenting classes, obtain mental health treatment and apply for government assistance.
Two months after caseworker Spencer was hired in September, she joined Brewer’s legal team. Over more than a decade of case management experience, Spencer has served clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities, worked as a youth specialist for foster children and as a parent educator assisting those at risk of losing their children to foster care or attempting to reunify with kids in the system.
In Brewer’s case, she quickly got to work lining up the support necessary to convince the local child welfare agency and a family court judge to return custody to the Rochester mother. That involved assisting with securing stable housing, finding furniture and filling out applications for public benefits.
“I wanted to quit because my kids are my everything. Without them, I’m nothing.”— Joelisa Brewer
From the start, Brewer was adamant about taking the steps necessary to get her children returned — even before Spencer stepped in. But her support was invaluable as she navigated the system before reuniting with her children.
“I had a couple of mental breakdowns, and they told me to stay strong,” Brewer said. Without the extra help, she added, “I don’t think I would have done it.”
Pre-petition defense catches on
New York’s Office of Indigent Legal Services laid out the need in its request for proposals. “Child welfare cases are complex, involving multiple and intertwined legal and social issues,” the document stated, noting: “Multifaceted pressures demand a multifaceted approach.”
The goal in all cases is “to prevent unnecessary removals and to assist the parent to obtain necessary and appropriate services that will keep the family together safely.”
Monroe County public defenders are now interviewing candidates for the parent advocate position on the local team. They are seeking parents who have successfully navigated the child welfare system and can provide peer-to-peer support, accompany clients to meetings, and help interact with professionals on the case.
Attorney Turner said in Monroe County, his office makes a point of ensuring that clients can distinguish between CPS workers — who have the power to remove children from home — and caseworkers in his office like Spencer, who are helping to get them back or to prevent removals in the first place. Parent advocates may be called upon to speak in court, and ideally will have “in-depth knowledge of the community and the resources available to parents and families,” Turner said. They will also be able to demonstrate “a willingness to advocate zealously for clients’ needs” and deploy “a person-centered approach to their work that places the needs of the client above all.”
Under the office’s Early Defense Representation pilot program, the family defense unit can represent 50 clients a year before a formal petition has been filed in family court and abuse and neglect allegations are still under investigation. “Pre-petition” representation is also a model spreading nationwide, and widely viewed as a best practice for parent attorneys.
Early resistance in Monroe County
The legal defense model could have been underway in Monroe County much sooner. Family Court Bureau Chief Adele Fine had spent decades arguing for the importance of the model. But it met resistance. The county was first selected by the Office of Indigent Legal Services for an inaugural grant in 2017, but the program was rejected by the county administration. Critics included former county executive Cheryl Dinfolo, who cited concerns that the pilot program would jeopardize children’s safety.
“The program itself, although well-intentioned, would have injected lawyers into cases of abuse and neglect much earlier,” a county spokesperson told Rochester news outlets, “potentially intimidating child victims and limiting access by CPS workers who would otherwise assess and monitor the child’s safety.”
Attorney Turner said that ultimately, new local leaders accepted the approach as a way to address glaring racial inequities in the child welfare system. Former Public Defender Tim Donaher also helped prepare the grant proposal and drum up community support.
In the end, Turner said county officials did not allow “fear-mongering to carry the day.”
Children and families need nonprofit news.
Nonprofit news needs you.
Donate today to support The Imprint in 2024.