On January 10, 2014, the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), the American Bar Association (ABA) Center on Children and the Law, and the Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services, in partnership with the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, Office of the Cuyahoga County Public Defender, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, Juvenile Division, and the Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) School of Law and Schubert Center for Child Studies presented “Raising the Bar for Parental Representation and Improving Child Welfare Outcomes,” a legal symposium focusing on quality legal representation for parents as an effective strategy to improve child welfare outcomes. The symposium consisted of two parts. An open morning session detailed the evidence behind the benefits of improved representation for parents, national campaigns to improve representation, and model programs from throughout the country. In the afternoon, an invited group of stakeholders from the Cuyahoga County gathered to explore challenges and opportunities for advancing improvements in Cuyahoga County’s legal system in order to promote better outcomes for children and families involved in child welfare.
The symposium was part of the ABA’s Center on Children and the Law’s National Project to Improve Representation for Parents in the Child Welfare System, as presented in the morning by Mimi Laver of the ABA Center on Children and the Law. Previous research has documented improved outcomes as a result of providing quality legal services, including fewer children unnecessarily removed from the home, reduced lengths of stay our-of-home if removed and lower costs in the child welfare system. Professor Martin Guggenheim, of the Family Defense Center at New York University School of Law, spoke of the reasons that child welfare professionals should support high-quality legal representation for parents, saying “the mutual business of child welfare is that we are all in this work to keep families together.”
In an informative morning panel, Professor Vivek Sankaran of the University of Michigan Law School and Child Welfare Director Michael Patterson of the Michigan Bureau of Child Welfare Department of Human Services presented on the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, which provides legal representation for families in the Osborn neighborhood of Detroit throughout a child protection investigation. They described a strong collaboration at the prevention level, addressing collateral legal issues such as housing and custody disputes, which has resulted in keeping all of the children safely in their homes. Professor Joanna Woolman of the William Mitchell College of Law and Justice Helen M. Meyer (ret.) of the Minnesota Supreme Court discussed the work of the Child Protection Clinic at the William Mitchell College of Law, which includes an advisory board with broad community representation and engagement. Sue Jacobs of the Center for Family Representation (CFR) and the Honorable Ron Richter, former Commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, described the work of the Center for Family Representation in keeping children out of foster care and supporting families using the Cornerstone Model. CFR’s cost comparison and outcome data shows, among other successes, that for children who are removed from their homes, CFR children have an average out-of-home length of stay of 2 months, versus the statewide average of 17 months. All of these models rely on active parent advocates and a team approach. Sam Amata of the Cuyahoga County Office of the Public Defender provided local perspectives on these models.
Three parent advocates also provided their perspectives in the conversation. Doreen Britt, Jeff Mayes, and Rhonda Mayes shared their personal case experiences, as well as their involvement with a former CCDCFS program, “Parents Helping Parents,” a Family-to-Family “Building a Better Future” initiative. The program trained volunteers to empower parents in navigating the legal system and language, foster relationships with lawyers, and serve as a trusted support with a shared experience. Faculty Associate David Crampton spoke at the Schubert Center about the Family to Family Initiative in 2010.
In the afternoon session, the Honorable William Thorne (ret.) of the Utah State Court of Appeals gave remarks on the history of the child welfare system, particularly as it related to treatment of American Indian children, and current research on the importance of creating strong connections between children and their families rather than separating them through foster care systems. Following his remarks, Patricia Rideout, Administrator of the Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services, and Gabriella Celeste, Director of Child Policy at the Schubert Center, lead a roundtable discussion on barriers and opportunities to improving representation for parents in Northeast Ohio. Following the discussion, Martha Raimon of the Center for the Study of Social Policy and Mimi Laver provided a summary and steps for action.