Why High-Quality Interdisciplinary Legal Representation for Parents is Essential to Keeping Kids with Family

Kathleen Creamer, Managing Attorney and April Lee, Peer Parent Advocate with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia,
baby and grandmother

We embark on this Kinship Month at a time of reckoning. Both the COVID crisis and the cries for racial justice have forced us to confront the failings of the child welfare system and have led to calls from our highest offices to reimagine the system as one with a mission of keeping kids safe with their families instead of safe from their families.

How can we close the gap between the calls for a family-centered system and the reality of the system that families actually experience?

As a peer parent advocate and an attorney working in a family defense practice, we know that high-quality, interdisciplinary legal representation for parents is an essential part of the solution.

Both in our everyday work with clients, and in our policy advocacy, we work towards reimagining a system that centers and honors the value of family. Access to kinship care is at the heart of this reimagining.

Family separation is an extraordinary trauma to inflict on both a child and a parent, and the grief and loss that we’ve borne witness to ripples across generations. The child welfare system has a shameful, and ongoing, legacy of dismantling Black, brown and Indigenous families, and entire communities have felt the impact of a system that has relied heavily on ineffective strategies of surveillance, control, and separation, with disastrous consequences for the well-being of children.

Our work is driven by the urgency of family connection. While we work first and foremost to prevent family separation whenever possible, where separation cannot be avoided our interdisciplinary teams work with parents to identify and mobilize their natural support network so that children are placed in homes that honor their need for family connection.

Our data shows that this approach works. In a recent study of our own outcomes, we found that while Philadelphia as a whole outperforms the rest of the state on kinship, children whose parents who have our advocacy are significantly more likely to experience kinship placements than other children in Philadelphia: among our clients who have children living in a family-like setting (rather than a group or institutional placement), the overwhelming majority, 77%, of these children are in kinship care, compared with a city average of 56%.

Our practice model and our expertise are key to these results. We bring together attorneys, social workers, paralegals and a peer advocate on teams to provide intensive, wrap-around support for each parent we represent. Here are a few keys to our work that keeps kids with family:

Meeting Each Family Where They Are

First and foremost, we work to meet each family where they are, without judgment. As our office’s peer parent advocate, April offers the parents we represent the empathy and understanding offered by someone who has suffered some of the same traumas they have. She remembers what it was like to be separated from her children and knows that empathy must be the starting point whenever a family is in crisis.

Bringing Family Together

While the law requires the agency engage in “family finding” to locate relatives to provide kinship care and other support, practice can be inconsistent. We work to overcome barriers that stand in the way of families coming together to plan for a child. Sometimes those are emotional barriers. For instance, one of April’s clients had a newborn baby placed in kinship with her youngest sister. The two fought often, and our client struggled with resentment as she missed her baby’s first tooth, the first time she rolled over, and her first time crawling. April helped the client to redirect her energy, offering constant reinforcements of love and compassion, and the kinship relationship grew. Now our client can see her child anytime she would like at her little sister’s home. The animosity has left the relationship.

Working to Stop Placement Disruptions

Kinship providers often show up in times of crisis, not fully prepared for the new challenges their family is facing. As a result, placements can “disrupt,” leading to children entering general foster care. Our social workers and peer advocate, who are experts at supporting people in crisis, work to deescalate conflict and support family communication. Often that work can help stabilize a kinship placement, but when a kinship placement does disrupt, we are often successful in helping the family make a new plan.

For instance, our client was struggling with a mental health challenge, and the relatives who were providing care for her five children announced they could not continue as caregivers. With our client’s permission, April spoke to as many family members as she could find. In collaboration with our client and her family, they not only found someone to care for the children but added more family resources and support for both the children and our client.

Using the Law to Fight Against Barriers to Kinship

While we strongly believe that some of the most important work that we do happens outside of the courtroom, our legal expertise can also be critical when court intervention is needed to ensure that children are placed in kinship care. Although the law generally sets standards for kinship resources to be approved, outdated agency policies and biases still play a role in driving children into stranger foster care.

For instance, we recently represented a mother who became incarcerated, and at the initial hearing her five children were separated from one another in stranger’s homes across the city, with one older child placed in a group home. Yet the maternal grandmother presented herself as a resource to the agency and stood ready to take in all five children. Unfortunately, while the agency worker agreed that the grandmother was likely a safe kinship resource, the grandmother had an old child abuse report from 16 years ago on her record. Recognizing that this artificial barrier was leading to the traumatic separation of this family, Kathleen brought this issue before the court. She brought the statute to the hearing officer’s attention and asked that the agency be ordered to place the children with the grandmother unless a true safety issue was identified. The court agreed, and these children are now safely in their grandmother’s care.

Providing parents high quality representation is a matter of justice and equity, and results in keeping and getting children with family. A key strategy for states to support kin and family bonds is to provide high quality, interdisciplinary parent representation, and there has never been a better time to invest in this intervention: the federal government has announced it will offer reimbursement to states that invest in parent attorneys and their interdisciplinary teams. We have been moved by the calls in recent months to create a system that centers family, a system that is built on a foundation of justice and healing. Evidence, and our experience, shows that an interdisciplinary model of parent representation works to meet these calls by centering the voices and lived experiences of our clients and working to honor their family bonds.

About the Expert

Jennifer Pokempner is a Senior Attorney at Juvenile Law Center. At Juvenile Law Center, her work focuses on improving outcomes and opportunities for older youth in the foster care system through policy and legal advocacy at the local, state, and national levels.