Panel Paper: Effects of a Multidisciplinary Approach to Parent Legal Representation in Child Welfare

Saturday, November 10, 2018
Johnson - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Lucas Gerber, Yuk C. Pang and Timothy Ross, Action Research Partners

Parents involved in child welfare court cases face steep challenges navigating the court process. The vast majority of child welfare involved parents live in poverty, and often extreme poverty. Compared to the general population, child welfare-involved parents have lower educational attainments, lower incomes, and are more likely to be socially isolated and learning disabled. A disproportionate number are parents of color who live in disadvantaged communities where mistrust and fear of government institutions are common. Lawyers for parents, then, are essential to ensure justice in child welfare court cases. Many national child welfare and legal experts agree that effective representation for parents in child welfare cases serves the vital purpose of engaging parents, supporting the safety and well-being of children and families, reducing the need for foster care, and saving government dollars. While the small number of empirical studies concerning multidisciplinary models of parent representation in child welfare show some support for the model, there are few methodologically rigorous evaluations of this model.

Using a mixed-method evaluation design of New York City’s parent representation program, this study adds to the developing literature about the effects of parent representation in child welfare on outcomes for children and families. In 2007, New York City contracted with three non-profit organizations to hire and train multidisciplinary teams of lawyers, social workers and parent advocates to represent parents charged in child abuse or neglect cases. Prior to 2007, the family court assigned indigent parents a lawyer from a panel of pre-qualified attorneys. Unlike the panel attorneys, who operate as solo practitioners, each non-profit provider offers parents who are eligible for court-appointed counsel the support of a multidisciplinary team that typically consisting of a lawyer, a social worker, and a parent advocate. Program stakeholders posit that this multidisciplinary team model of representation, through advocacy in and out of court, increases stable and safe reunification, shortens lengths of stay in foster care, and often avoids foster care placements entirely. Because both models of parent representation operate concurrently, the study compares the outcomes of similar cases—which received either the panel or the multidisciplinary approach—using propensity score matching. Specifically, the study assesses whether or not children whose parents are respondents in child abuse or neglect petitions filed in the New York City Family Court and are eligible for court-assigned counsel are more likely to be quickly, safely, and permanently kept together with their birth families if their parents are represented by multidisciplinary attorney team compared to children of similar families whose parents are represented by panel attorneys. Qualitative interviews were also conducted with attorneys and court personnel, as well as with parents who experienced a case in the New York City Family Court.