Legal Representation for Parents and Children

Some of the saddest stories I hear are from parents who are desperately seeking quality legal assistance as they face termination of parental rights.

While 38 states provide a right to an attorney for parents, children may be removed before an attorney is appointed, and many attorneys have high caseloads, low pay, and little time to meet with and understand the parents’ situation.

But what are the outcomes with quality legal representation?  Washington state has provided legal representation for indigent parents for over a decade.  Six evaluations of the program, all favorable, show speedier reunifications and movement to permanent placements when reunification with parents is not possible.

The Center for Family Representation in New York provides every parent with an attorney, a social worker, and a parent advocate. Parent advocates are parents who had their children removed but were able to successfully reunify their families.  The parent team works together to problem-solve and identify resources. The model is a combination of legal representation, social work, and mentoring.  Parents report great satisfaction with the program and good outcomes.

Apart from the success of these programs, very few states are currently providing quality legal representation.  To address this need nationwide, the federal government recently authorized payment of up to 50% of the cost for legal representation for both parents and children.  This is the first time federal money has been authorized, and the money will come from the Title IV-E entitlement funds used to pay for foster care.

The problem remains how the states will pay for their share of the cost.  Most states have no dedicated funding stream for legal representation of parents and children.  Funding for attorneys does not come from child welfare system budgets but from other sources such as the courts.  The 50% federal match will go to the child welfare agency so agreements will need to be established between courts and child welfare systems.

Meanwhile, the federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF) has issued best practice standards for attorneys that include:

 Thoroughly prepare clients for court, explain the hearing process and debrief after hearings are completed to make sure clients understand the results. For children this must be done in a developmentally appropriate way.

 Regularly communicate with collateral contacts (i.e., treatment providers, teachers, social workers).

 Meet with clients outside of court (this provides attorneys an opportunity to observe clients in multiple environments and independently verify important facts).

 Have meaningful and ongoing conversation with all clients about their strengths, needs, and wishes.

 Regularly ask all clients what would be most helpful for his or her case, what is working, and whether there is any service or arrangement that is not helpful, and why.

 Work with every client to identify helpful relatives for support, safety planning and possible placement.

 Attend and participate in case planning, family group decision-making and other meetings a client may have with the child welfare agency.

 Work with clients individually to develop safety plan and case plan options to present to the court.


For more information on the ACF memo on high quality legal representation, visit

The Chronicle of Social Change has prepared a comprehensive overview of legal representation available here


Posted by Priscilla Martens,  NFPN Executive Director




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