Assessing the Quality of Child Advocacy in Dependency Proceedings in Pennsylvania

Lucy Johnston-Walsh, Penn State Dickinson School of Law; Susan Kinnevy, Philadelphia Department of Human Services; Alan M. Lerner, University of Pennsylvania Law School; Jennifer Pokempner, Juvenile Law Center,

Since 1972, children in child abuse and neglect matters have had a right to legal representation through the appointment of guardian ad litems.  However, a lack of investment in supervision, training, and compensation of these child advocates continues to hurt children.  The new study states that “The decisions made by child welfare agencies and the courts have significant and life changing effects on children and families who come into contact with the child welfare system. Effective legal representation and advocacy for children in the dependency system can make a huge difference in improving the chances that fair and accurate determinations are made, and that permanency for children and families can be achieved in the shortest time possible.”

Among the report’s key findings are the following:

  • Many lawyers for children are not complying with the Juvenile Act nor the American Bar Association Standards of Practice;
  • Despite a uniform source of legal standards and judicial rules, practice varies widely from county to county;
  • Many children and youth are not participating in their court reviews; and
  • While there is no shortage of lawyers’ commitment to the job of representing children, quality suffers because of a lack of sufficient support for the lawyers, as well as a lack of supervision and monitoring of the lawyers to ensure that at least minimum basic standards are met.

The report makes the following recommendations:

  • Attorneys, judges, and agencies must adhere to the requirements of Act 18 and the ABA Standards of Practice;
  • Attorneys need specialized training;
  • Caseload size should be capped in order to promote higher quality representation;
  • Compensation should be increased to reflect standards of practice;
  • Youth must be involved more fully in their representation and in court proceedings as required by the law; and
  • Judges should have high expectations of the attorneys who appear before them.