Saturday, October 21, 2023

The many hats of a rural child welfare attorney

I've dedicated my three previous posts (here, here, and here) to exploring rural child welfare systems. My own research spanning law review articles, child welfare journals, news articles, and legislative reports, however, took me nearly everywhere except the realm of attorney-specific reforms.

Attorneys can play vital roles in furthering child welfare; it was an attorney, working pro bono, who emancipated one of my own family members, saving them from a situation that would have satisfied any child welfare agency's criteria for removal.

So stories like Gabriel Fernandez's hit too close to home and shook me to my core. The death of eight-year-old Gabriel, at the hands of his own mother and her boyfriend, became the subject of a 2022 Netflix limited series documentary that exposed the shortcomings of the child welfare system.

So many adults failed Gabriel, and there were reports that the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services falsified records of child abuse and kept him with his abusers.

If an urban child welfare agency had these glaring flaws, I wondered how such agencies managed in rural communities.

Casey Family Programs highlights some of the rural-specific barriers to child welfare: higher rates of child poverty, geographic spread that impedes access to social services and family members, limited infrastructure, fewer community-based services, and difficulties recruiting and retaining professional staff.

I wondered where attorneys fit into the child welfare equation and how they could better serve at-risk rural children in their day-to-day work.

Child welfare scholars Paul Johnson and Katherine Cahn provide a generalized approach in their article "Improving Child Welfare Practice Through Improvements in Attorney-Social Worker Relationships."Johnson and Cahn push for cross-training between attorneys and social workers to develop better working relationships for more effective and efficient child welfare outcomes.

The child welfare system requires engagement of several different professionals, including social workers, lawyers, judges, mental and public health professionals, and educators. Johnson and Cahn stress “patience, flexibility, and sacrifice” when sharing knowledge across these professional boundaries.

However, Johnson and Cahn found that attorneys and social workers often diverge on who is responsible for deciding if the child should testify in court; who should recommend a disposition to the court; and who should interpret the court’s orders to the parents. They also reported a “wide range in the levels of consultation between attorneys and social workers” in court cases, with attorneys “generally ha[ving] less social service training than social workers ha[ve] legal training.”

Johnson and Cahn discuss the “Children Can’t Wait” cross-training seminar. The 1988 seminar was designed by the Northwest Resource Center for Children, Youth, and Families to address the conflicts between social workers and attorneys. The seminar included attorneys, public agency social workers, judges, court commissioners, court personnel, guardians ad litem, citizen advocates, child welfare administrators and supervisors, community treatment-resource professionals, volunteer citizen board review members, foster parents and other community professionals from schools, members of local indigenous tribes, and law enforcement officials.

At this seminar, social workers recommend that attorneys “participate in more child welfare training from elementary concepts to advanced practice.” They also suggest that attorneys “respect and understand[]” social workers’ limitations. Social workers also underscored the need for attorneys to be “less adversarial and more trusting, while providing more time for consultation and more consistency in their appointments.”

The lack of anonymity in rural areas amplifies both the need to build this gap and the ability to do so. Given the shortage of attorneys and social services in rural areas, rural attorneys are likely to interact with the same social workers on several occasions.

At the end of the day, better relationships between rural attorneys and social workers provides a unified advocacy effort that is more effective and efficient.

As already noted, social workers are not the only other force at play. The American Bar Association (“ABA”) finds isolated rural courts and government agencies have a scarcity of services which may lower the court's expectations and have detrimental effects for child welfare: lowered expectations may take the form of “decreased visitation, phone-only court appearances, greatly expanded timelines for removal and adjudication findings, significantly limited discovery, denial of expert requests, lowering the bar for reasonable and/or active efforts, increased pro se representation, and so on.”

"Advocating for Parents in Rural America: A Best Practices Approach" provides the ABA’s best approach for rural attorneys representing parents to combat this harmful two-tiered system.

Attorneys representing parents must employ a knowledge-based approach, which revolves around a strong understanding of the rural communities they work in.

This knowledge can help rebut the “cookie cutter” case plans that courts often impose, without any concern for the availability of the services they are mandating, nor the parents’ ability to access those services. A knowledgeable rural attorney will have a better idea of what services are available and advocate a case plan consistent with the parents’ capacities—one that doesn’t set the parents up for failure. A further discussion on rural parent’s limitations and their impact in the termination of parental rights can be found here.

This knowledge-based approach also enables better working relationships with the community’s social service hubs and the people within them, including social workers, judges, and other involved professionals

Furthermore, rural attorneys can and should go a step further to help parents access these resources through both informal and on-record means. These extra measures are vital to ensuring parents can meet case plan requirements in spite of any personal and community limitations.

Child welfare is a team effort, and large-scale and long-term reforms are necessary to overhaul the system. In the meantime, rural attorneys can shape their practice habits and working relationships to provide the immediate assistance that at-risk rural children and families require.

1 comment:

Isha Sharma said...

I learned a lot from this read and the other posts in this series, Chris. I remember hearing the case of Gabriel and that was shocking. I was surprised a whole system set up to prevent this type of situation failed and contributed to the outcome. Given the well-known lack of resources, rates of domestic violence and drug abuse in rural areas, the child welfare system is that much more crucial. I appreciate that you mention how rural attorneys can work with what they currently have to provide better assistance to families.