The idea of legal help as a strategy to avoid foster care removals and other child welfare involvement was born in Detroit back in 2009. The Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, founded by two University of Michigan law professors, successfully kept all of its client families together; not a single child entered foster care in the seven years the center operated.
But in 2016, when the philanthropic seed money ran out, Wayne County (of which Detroit is the seat) did not come up with the funding to absorb it into its child welfare continuum. The center shut down, but five years later, the county now appears ready to bring back its mission.
On June 15, the Michigan Supreme Court announced a pilot project that in its first year will provide $700,000 to two organizations to provide pre-petition legal counsel to families. This help is targeted at assisting families that have come to the attention of child welfare agencies but are not yet the subject of a petition in court.
“This is an important step towards recognizing that supporting families rather than separating them must be the foundation of reform efforts,” said Vivek Sankaran, who along with Don Duquette founded the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy. “Lawyers can play a pivotal role in ensuring that families left behind can access the resources they are entitled to, but are so often unable to access.”
The legal advocacy will be carried out by Neighborhood Defender Service, which operates in Detroit and New York City, and Lakeshore Legal Aid. At yesterday’s online press conference, Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Clement said that while a few states and counties have seen pre-petition programs start — ventures Iowa and New Jersey have emerged as national models — she believes that Michigan’s pilot is the first one led by the courts.
“Making sure that each child has a safe, permanent and loving home is always the top priority of our courts,” Clement said. She said the pilot is an example of the court and partners “ensuring that those involved in child welfare cases have a level playing field so they can avoid family separation.”
The funding for the pilot comes from a federal pipeline that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services tapped into in 2019. The previous year, the Trump administration quietly changed the rules on Title IV-E — a large child welfare entitlement — to allow state agencies to seek 50% reimbursement on costs associated with providing lawyers to both parents and children.
Michigan used that permission to allow the state’s regional court districts, which in this state are responsible for paying for parent and child counsel, to apply for the federal funding. But there is a condition: the courts couldn’t just apply to pay for business as usual, the money had to be spent on improving the quality and/or scope of counsel.
This pilot will allocate $700,000 of the Title IV-E funds going to the Third Circuit, which oversees Wayne County, to moving parent legal services upstream. Traditionally, attorneys are provided to parents only after a petition has been filed, which often means that the potential for a removal to foster care is already on the table when they come into the picture.
That funding will cover the period between July of 2021 and September of 2022, and is evenly split between the two defender services, said Richard Smart, deputy court administrator at the Wayne County Third Circuit Court. Smart said the program will be capped at “approximately a total of 480 referrals per year, on average.”
Note: This article was updated on June 17.