Reunification Talk on Capitol Hill

by John Kelly

Youth Services Insider caught most of the Congressional briefing on family reunification this week, which was hosted by a quartet of organizations: the American Bar Association, the National Foster Care Coalition, Children and Family Futures and the Child Welfare League of America.

The general thrust was this:  The successful execution of reunification plans gets short shrift when it comes to improving child welfare systems. Making foster care situations better, and increasing the number of adoptions, garner much of the attention for reform, even though both are more expensive propositions than returning a child home.

This is not entirely the fault of the system; it takes both an amenable court and a willing parent to make a reunification plan work. Speakers Robin Lyde and Sue Jacobs of New York’s Center for Family Representation (CFR) argued at the briefing that overburdened courts and caseworkers were poor partners in reunification, and that a more personal approach is needed.

That is the model CFR and a few other organizations have developed in New York. CFR pairs each family sent its way with a staff attorney, caseworker and a parent advocate to help them meet the requirements of a reunification plan.

Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) has introduced a bill (H.R. 3873) that would amend the federal Court Improvement Project to include potential funds for “the provision of legal representation to parents and legal guardians with respect to child welfare” proceedings.

The bill would increase the Court Improvement Project authorization by $10 million dollars, and set aside the funding for grants to help family courts provide representation. Applicants would have to demonstrate how they would set up the program, how it will prioritize services and collect data on the program.

It could open up some pilot replications of the CFR approach. If courts partnered with a similar area nonprofit, the funds could alleviate the biggest cost (lawyers) and allow the organization to focus other funds on parent advocates.

The advocate is the crux of the CFR model. A vigilant lawyers and caseworker can help craft the best plan and explain it to a parent, but it’s the advocate that has the credibility to push the parent to stick with it.

Another advocate, Curtis Lindsay of D.C.’s Parent Advocate Project, spoke emotionally at the briefing about including parents formerly involved with the system. Kayla Becker of the American Bar Association got his speech on video, and was kind enough to share:

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