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  • December 05, 2019

    Strengthening Families through High Quality Parent Legal Representation

    The legal community can strengthen families by providing, training, and supporting attorneys for parents involved in the child welfare system, says Alaina Fahley, who discusses what high quality parent representation would look like in Wisconsin.

    Alaina K. Fahley

    Nationwide, the child welfare community continues to develop procedures to prevent “unnecessary family disruption,” to prevent “maltreatment and the unnecessary removal of children from their families,” and to decrease the children involved in the system.1

    Recently, one of the most significant parts of this movement has been to provide high quality legal representation for parents.2 This may be surprising, but the recent evidence supports legal representation for parents. The Wisconsin legal community can strengthen families by providing, training, and supporting attorneys for parents involved in the child welfare system.

    Pilot Programs in Wisconsin

    In the child welfare system as a whole, parents are not entitled to legal representation. In fact, practices differ across the nation and throughout Wisconsin.

    Unlike criminal defendants or children accused of delinquent behavior, Wisconsin has not automatically provided parents involved in the child welfare system with counsel. Counties like Dane and Milwaukee have provided attorneys for parents in CHIPS proceedings through court appointment.

    Alaina Fahley Alaina Fahley, Marquette 2013, is a staff attorney with the Wisconsin State Public Defender in Appleton, where she focuses on representing children and parents.

    In July 2018, five counties (Racine, Kenosha, Dane, Outagamie, and Winnebago) were selected by the Wisconsin Legislature to participate in a pilot program that allows indigent parents to apply for representation through the State Public Defender Office.

    No matter the mechanism, providing high quality legal representation to Wisconsin can assist families involved in the child welfare system.

    The Benefits

    High quality legal representation for parents actually supports more timely permanency for children in the child welfare system (reunification, guardianship, and adoption).

    A landmark study published in 2019 found that, in providing parents with high quality legal representation, families were able to “hasten permanency for children in foster care” and “achieve reunification and guardianship more quickly.”3

    This study reviewed child welfare data and found that, when children were involved in foster care and their parents received interdisciplinary high quality legal representation, children spent 118 fewer days in foster care in the four years following the abuse or neglect finding.4

    High quality parental legal representation also provides parents, children, and the community with procedural fairness. Parents with attorneys have an advocate, a voice, which helps the parents and families to have a place in the courtroom.

    Such representation allows judges to hear from child welfare advocates, from guardians ad litem, and from the parents themselves, with a skilled advocate at their side. When parents feel like they are being treated fairly, they tend to respond more positively and they then to engage more with the system, both in child welfare and the judiciary.

    The bottom line: parental representation encourages family engagement and stability. Having a parent attorney allows the family’s voice to be included in a sometimes sterile courtroom environment. When a high quality attorney is involved in a family’s case, it allows for representation in the courtroom and in the child protection office. It allows for specific and tailored agreements and case plans to be made with the family.

    Parents who have an advocate are more likely be engaged with the system and with their children. It encourages parent involvement, which can increase likelihood of permanency and reunification, as well as visitation and family time.

    What High Quality Legal Representation Looks Like

    Providing high quality legal representation necessarily involves knowing the policies and procedures of the child welfare system, and therefore, it can involve representation of parents in team meetings and administrative settings. It includes an interdisciplinary, social work focus in providing legal representation.

    High quality legal representation requires providing “cornerstone advocacy.” According to the Center for Family Representation in New York, parent representation should be structured around four cornerstones:

    • Visitation or family time: Time with one’s children should be as frequent and as long as possible, and should mimic family time before the child’s involvement in placement.

    • Placement: Placement should honor a child’s connection to family and other important connections. Family should be the priority.

    • Services: Services provided by the department should be tailored to the family, and should address the strengths and needs of the children and the parents.

    • Conferences/meetings: Parents should have frequent meetings with counsel, social workers, and family members. Each member of the family should have meaningful participation in the development of any case plan.5

    Including these cornerstones in and out of the courtroom provides a foundation for high quality legal representation for parents.

    Next Steps

    There is growing support for providing high quality legal representation throughout the U.S. Wisconsin can be one of the new areas of growth in this legal arena – serving to help both the parents and families involved in the child welfare system, and improving the lives of parents and children in Wisconsin.


    1 See Information Memorandum ACYF-CB-IM-18-05 on “Reshaping child welfare in the United States to focus on strengthening families through primary prevention of child maltreatment and unnecessary parent-child separation,” U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (Nov. 16, 2018).

    2 See How does high quality legal representation for parents support better outcomes?” Strong Families Strategy Brief, Casey Family Programs (July 2019); and Thornton, E., “Why High Quality Parent Representation Matters,” ABA Child Law Practice (March 2013).

    3 See Gerber, L.A., et. al., “Effects of an Interdisciplinary Approach to Parental Representation in Child Welfare,” in Children and Youth Services Review 42 (July 2019).

    4 Id.

    5 Cohen, J. and Cortese, M., “Cornerstone Advocacy in the First 60 Days: Achieving Safe and Lasting Reunification for Families,” ABA Child Law Practice (May 2009).

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    Children & the Law Blog is published by the Children & the Law Section and the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Christie Christie and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Children & the Law Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

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