Legal Representation for Families in Child Protection Services
It is difficult for me to imagine having my children taken from me and then going to court with no one to tell me what is happening. Unless a person has attended law school or worked in our court system, the average American does not know what to expect when arriving at court. If you are a person of means, you have contacted your lawyer the moment a legal issue arises, but many people are not in that position. If you are not a person of means and you are involved in a legal case, you may have a lawyer assigned to you; to speak on your behalf and navigate the intricacies of the system. However, many parents who find themselves involved with child protection do not have such a guide and advocate. Minnesota is only one of five states in the country where statutory appointment of an attorney for parents in a child protection matter is not mandatory. There is nothing more important in a parent’s life than our children. Parents with mental illness or substance abuse issues care just as deeply about their children. For any parent who has had their children removed from their home, to not have strong legal representation is unacceptable.
What is happening in Minnesota regarding parental legal representation? Most Minnesotans would be shocked to know that we are NOT one of the 45 states in the union that have representation as a mandatory service for parents whose children have been removed. The newly established Institute to Transform Child Protection at Mitchell Hamline School of Law did a report of several community scans and analyzed federal and state data. They learned that nearly half of the counties in Minnesota whose parents have had children removed from their care do not have an attorney with them at the initial removal hearing. It is a huge gap!
There is plenty of evidence that high quality legal representation is critical to a well-functioning child welfare system. It would be best to have parent representation that includes a lawyer, a legal assistant and a social worker in order to do the best work possible on these cases. It is also important to have representation available to parents at the initial removal hearing or as early as possible. A recent article from the Chronicle of Social Change, New York’s Parent Defender Model Lowers Reliance on Foster Care, Study Finds highlights the results of a study showing that kids exited foster care 118 days (around four months) sooner when the parents had strong legal representation. That means less trauma for both the kids and the parents. Also, finalization of guardianship cases occurred twice as fast. Time is important in a child’s life; four months in a one-year old’s life is 1/3 of their life. The first 1,000 days is critical for a child’s healthy brain development that will affect them the rest of their life. Shorter time away from their family is important for them to become a highly functioning adult in the future.
It is universally understood that foster care stays should be short-term. The original idea was that the foster home was a temporary home to keep the child safe until family could be identified for the child. In the past, the stay would be as short as possible because it was widely recognized that children belong with their family. Having high quality parent representation will help bring foster care back to what it was meant to be, short term. Also, the New York study confirmed that safety is not jeopardized with more robust legal representation.
It will take time to work out the mechanics of a strong parental legal representation system in Minnesota. A group of stakeholders will be looking at how to use the new opportunity through Title IV-E to receive a federal match for state money spent on parent representation. The time is now and there are very smart people at the table that care for the well-being of our children and families. Stay tuned as they gather and get to work. It is important for our state leadership to understand how important mandatory parental legal representation for child protection cases is for reducing trauma and increasing the well-being of our children and their families.