A panel of independent attorneys, led by a former foster youth will soon represent parents in Alameda County
A start-up law firm in Northern California with a progressive approach to representing parents who’ve lost their kids to foster care is scrambling to hand off its more than 1,000 clients this week, after the state court administration terminated its contract.
The circumstances surrounding the end of the firm’s contract with the Judicial Council of California are not entirely clear. But leaders of the East Bay Family Defenders said the conclusion of its three-year run was unwanted and sudden for the firm, which served clients in a more holistic way than traditional practice — pairing attorneys with a social worker and a parent advocate with lived experience.
Although the $1.5 million annual contract to represent 1,100 parents and 80 children in Alameda County dependency courts was relatively small, it had attracted national attention among child welfare attorneys. From New York to Oklahoma and Colorado, there has been a slow but steady growth in the “interdisciplinary” model of representing parents — a model shown to reduce the time children spend in foster care and to hasten family reunifications.
Proponents lament the termination of the San Leandro-based firm’s contract, after so little time.
“If this could have been allowed to continue for another five to 10 years, Alameda County would have been transformed,” said New York University law professor Martin Guggenheim, a child welfare legal expert. “But it was broken up, and I think it’s a significant step backwards.”
The new group taking over legal representation for the region’s low-income parents accused of child abuse and neglect — Alameda County Parent’s Counsel — will operate on a different model, assigning cases to individual attorney contractors, rather than staffing up a firm. But its CEO Dawn McMahan, a former foster youth, said hers will not be “your typical” attorney panel.
“We do have social workers and parent advocates on our team who will all be working under the independent contractor model, when clients engage in their services,” McMahan wrote to The Imprint.
Zabrina Aleguire, the outgoing firm’s external executive director, stated in an email that her firm’s lawyers are doing everything they can to smooth the transition to a new legal team. But with clients heavily reliant on their advocates to meet strict court-ordered timelines and to convince judges they deserve to have their kids back, the process is being unnecessarily rushed, she added.
“This was not our decision,” Aleguire stated. “We are, of course, concerned about the abrupt change in counsel which our clients will now experience.”
Aleguire said before her firm’s contract was set to expire in August, its directors had asked the Judicial Council to amend the scope of its contract. That appears to have resulted in the council’s search for other possible firms.
Blaine Corren, public affairs analyst for the Judicial Council, which is the administrative branch of the court system, said in an email that East Bay Family Defenders and other providers were invited to apply for the contract. It was ultimately awarded to Alameda County Parent’s Counsel, headed by McMahan, a Walnut Creek family law and dependency attorney. Corren added that transition plans in place will ensure there is “no disruption in service” for current clients.
“No matter which vendor we contract with,” Corren wrote, “the council is committed to high-quality service and the use of interdisciplinary models in the dependency counsel program.”
The new firm’s website is still under construction, but McMahan’s current law practice is described online as “a new kind of family law firm for a changing world.” McMahan said her personal history with the child welfare system has been her motivation to seek the new role.
“I am a former foster youth who pursued this field of law exclusively in order to serve my community and provide representation to parents whose current life situations are very much like my own when growing up,” McMahan said.
In Alameda County, about 1,200 children are currently in foster care, of whom 33% are Latino and roughly 46% are Black.
The East Bay Family Defenders began representing parents here in 2018, replacing a panel of private attorneys paid a flat fee by the Juvenile Dependency Counselors to represent parents in dependency court hearings.
Prior to their arrival in Alameda County, co-founders Aleguire and Eliza Patten had learned previously about the interdisciplinary approach while working and studying in New York City, where the interdisciplinary model was pioneered. The approach is based on the notion that in dependency courts — civil proceedings that mostly ensnare impoverished families who are disproportionately people of color — legal representation alone is not enough to address the many barriers families face.
Mimi Laver, a director with the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law, called the end of East Bay Family Defenders “extremely disappointing” news. She stated in an email that the firm’s work — pairing lawyers with peer advocates, using data to improve client services and national advocacy — has been well-regarded.
“East Bay Family Defenders has worked diligently to meet all the attributes of high-quality legal representation so their clients and their families can thrive,” she said.
Laver said the contract change will also disrupt hundreds of families’ cases.
“Without having given any input, 1,100 parents are being transferred to new lawyers who they don’t know and with whom they have not built trusting relationships,” Laver wrote. “We know that consistency in representation is a key to better outcomes, and this is obviously interfering with that consistency.”
The American Bar Association and other legal experts say the interdisciplinary model is used in Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties in California, as well as in the states of Colorado, Washington, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Louisiana, showing demonstrably better outcomes for parents and children.
It remains unclear to what extent the new firm in Alameda County will be able to replicate the East Bay Family Defenders’ model. In her email, McMahan stated that although her firm will rely on individually contracted attorneys, she hoped to continue offering interdisciplinary services “in a more cost-effective manner.”
A 2019 study in New York City revealed better outcomes for families when parents were represented by lawyers practicing in interdisciplinary firms, rather than “solo practitioner” lawyers appointed by the courts.
The study involved 9,582 families and 18,288 children who came into contact with New York City’s child welfare system from 2007 to 2014. Families represented by the Center for Family Representation, Bronx Defenders and Brooklyn Defenders Services were significantly more likely to reunify than those who were not.
What’s more, children of parents represented by lawyers from the firms exited foster care about four months sooner than the families assigned to panel attorneys. The study also found that by using an interdisciplinary model of parent representation, New York City saved about $10,000 per child in averted foster care costs.
Guggenheim, an author of the study and one of the architects of the New York City model, said that these law firms offer a more potent “collective force” that is better able to hold courts and child welfare agencies accountable to the needs of parents.
Guggenheim knows the founders of the East Bay Family Defenders well — he mentored both Patten and Aleguire while the two were in New York, and suggested that they work together in the Bay Area.
Central to the model he developed is assisting parents beyond the courtroom, in settings such as meetings with social workers, and team conferences with family members.
“Panel lawyers are notorious for being in-court advocates, thinking wrongly that that’s where they’re most needed,” he said. “The advocacy that happens out of court is much more important. We never let a client attend a meeting with the agency unrepresented, any more than I would allow my client in a tax case to talk to the IRS without my presence.”
This story has been revised to reflect the following changes from an earlier version: East Bay Family Defenders sought to amend the scope of its contract, not to seek additional funds to keep up with expenses; it replaced Juvenile Dependency Counselors, not the county bar association. Co-founders Zabrina Aleguire and Eliza Patten had learned previously about the interdisciplinary model while working and studying in New York City. Only Aleguire had worked as a parent defender in New York City.