Bar Association Report: Funding Shifts Greatly Affect Legal Counsel for Kids, Parents

Research has shown that quality legal representation on behalf of all parties in the child welfare system improves the outcome for children and families alike. But until now, little research has been conducted on just how funding affects the ability to provide quality legal services.

A new 60-page report by the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law aimed to illuminate this factor. Its conclusion was, perhaps, not so surprising: You get what you pay for, at least in California.

According to the 60-page report, released this week, titled “Effects of Funding Changes on Legal Representation Quality in California Dependency Cases: An Assessment,” found that changes in funding for children’s and parents’ counsel have a direct impact on quality representation. For example, funding levels affect attorney recruitment and retention and lawyers’ ability to call in experts from other disciplines on behalf of clients.They also affect lawyers’ caseloads, workload per case and how often and how long cases are delayed in court, the report found.

fundingOverall: More money equals better outcomes for children and families, and less funding equals a worse outcome. This holds true regardless of whether the case is in an urban, suburban or rural jurisdiction, the report found.

“It is not rocket science that smaller caseloads and a larger workforce lead to better outcomes,” said Leslie Starr Heimov, on a webinar held to discuss the findings of the report. “When you have more time to tend to the needs of a particular case, you can ensure each client gets the attention they need.”

Heimov did caution against conflating “more” and “adequate,” though. In California, funds for counsel have recently increased by $37 million, but the state is still at 77% of need.

“More than a little is not necessarily a lot,” she said.

A stronger emphasis on quality representation gained headwinds in 2017, when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau called on child welfare agencies, courts and other groups to work together to ensure all three parties in child welfare proceedings — parents, children and youth, and child welfare agencies — receive better legal representation at all stages of child welfare proceedings.

To arrive at its conclusions, the assessment examined sites in California that either received additional funding or lost funding for dependency counsel between 2014 and 2018. It’s a timely study because in late 2018, the Children’s Bureau began letting states tap federal funding to support children’s and parents’ counsel for the first time, the report said. And more recently, the bureau clarified that the funding can be used to pay for multidisciplinary legal teams that include paralegals, investigators, peer mentors and social workers.

In addition to the impact of funding on legal representation, the ABA’s assessment led to other findings that states and counties can consider when evaluating options for investing in high-quality legal representation.

The report found that factors within the child welfare system itself also play a role, including agency policy, court funding and structure, and client access to services. Factors outside the child welfare system, such as homelessness and poverty, also affect the quality of legal representation available to children and parents, the report found. Unstable housing, lack of access to affordable transportation, or a rural location can make it tough to meet with clients or ensure they appear in court.

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