Things family defenders can do to reduce the destruction of families in America

This is William C. Bell’s opening keynote address at the National Parent Attorney Conference, a two-day event hosted by the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law on July 22, 2015. The theme for the event was “Achieving Justice Against the Odds.” About 400 attorneys, judges, court personnel and representatives from child welfare attended.

Speech as written

It is an honor to be here with you this morning to offer a few remarks on a subject that is so critical to our future, reducing the destruction of families in America.

This is an area where we all must stand together to make sure that all of our nation’s families have the support they need to achieve well-being and stability.

We have to bring others along. There have been many issues throughout time that people never thought would change. I believe that agencies, judges, social workers and others can change.

I do not stand before you today as one who believes that he can or should tell you what to do.  I speak to you today to offer a perspective – my perspective, CFP’s perspective – on how we can better assist parents and families to remain strong and grow even stronger as they face the overwhelmingly complex experience of dealing with the impact that a child welfare and a dependency court case has on their lives.

This experience begins with one of the most difficult and life changing decisions that child welfare professionals, police officers, judges, attorneys, and others will ever make. It begins with the question, should this child be separated from their family for protective reasons?

Put a different way, this experience begins with someone making the decision that they should demonstrate to a child that the one belief that we have all held as the core tenet of our own safety in our minds and in our hearts is no longer true for them.

We all begin our lives and most of us move throughout our entire childhood holding on to the undeniable belief that our parents are the most powerful people in our world and they can protect us from anything.

Most of us go through our entire childhood never having any reason not to believe that our parents can and will protect us from anything.

Without this belief structure it would be impossible for us to ever feel truly safe. Every child protective removal changes this perspective for the impacted children for the rest of their lives.

The child protective removal decision also challenges and changes the parent’s perspective on their ability to meet their parental responsibility, even when they are convinced that  the removal was the wrong decision, or even when they realize that their child did need to be protected from them in that moment.

Most parents would at least suggest that they would be willing to lay down their lives for the lives of their children, but in these cases they are unable to even prevent someone from walking into their homes and removing their children.

This is where our concept and discussions about reducing the destruction of families must begin. Children and parents should not be forced into a legal confrontation over child’s rights vs. parent’s rights, but rather the question should be how do we restore that bond that has now been broken? Whether broken as a result of a boyfriend’s behavior, or broken as a result of poor decision making by others, we need to question – when children are in care for 90 days or less – was there some other option.

And even if the ultimate outcome is adoption, how do we help this parent and this child to heal from an experience that many of us have no way of conceiving as ever being real in our own lives.

Imagine this

Imagine, as a single, working parent you’re arrested for letting your 9-year-old daughter play unsupervised at a playground near your job, and your daughter is placed in foster care. Nothing could have prepared you for this. You feel vilified, when, as a parent, all you were trying to do was to do your best with the life circumstances you had. But should it take years to get her back?

Imagine, as a parent, your spouse, who normally picks up your three children from school every day, is out of town. You arrange for a relative to pick up the children and drop them off at home, where they spend the next two hours alone and unsupervised until you get home from work.  But at some point, the police are alerted and your children are removed from their home. Your and your spouse’s parenting is called into question. You’re made to feel unfit to parent and raise your own children. You question yourself, and your children question everything.

Or imagine, as a parent, you have an 18-month-old child, your husband or wife just walked out on you. You are isolated, embarrassed and depressed. You have been drinking to cope with your situation. You take your 18-month-old child to the doctor at one of those 24-hour medical services clinics. The child has been irritable, cranky and crying a lot. The doctor diagnoses an ear infection, which is not uncommon for children in their very early years of life. But the doctor suspects something more has been going on, and he reports his suspicions to child welfare.  What happens next should not be a multi-year struggle to prove your worthiness as a parent.

In reality, there is no such thing as an ideal parent. We are all less than perfect. But for parents in the child welfare system, it is time for us as a nation to decide how much we are willing to change their experience.

But you know these stories all too well. Imagination is not required. As attorneys, judges, social workers, and advocates you know that these stories happen all too often in America today. It’s happening far more frequently than it should in the lives of families all across this country; parents who, most of the time, live in certain ZIP codes.

The question is what must we do differently if we want to see a different result for the families that come before us.

In 2013, 3.5 million referrals alleging maltreatment were made to CPS.

Of the nearly 1.3 million children who received child welfare services in 2013, a little more than one million received services at home and approximately 239,000 were placed in foster care.

If nothing changes in the way we are behaving as a system over the next decade nearly 2.5 million more children and their families will have to face this life changing and reality altering experience.

Impacts that reduce the destruction of families

What must we do if we are serious about the reduction in family destruction?

This morning I want to share with you eight thoughts that I believe can impact our efforts to help reduce the destruction of families in America:

  1. We must re-frame our mindset to accommodate a broader perspective of child well-being in the dependency court and child welfare case practice areas
  • Throughout the history of developing our child welfare response system, we have attempted to force ourselves to believe that we could address the best interests of a child without addressing the interests and needs of their parents and their families, or without understanding the conditions in their communities.
  • We must see children in the context of their families and we must see families in the context of the communities in which they live.
  1. We must move the affected voices to the center of the conversation, not just the interpretations of those voices. In other words let parents and children speak and listen to them.
  • It is time to rethink the way that we approach and structure the judicial conversation in child welfare cases.
  • Children’s’ and parents’ voices must be heard.
  • Representing children and parents does not mean deciding what is best for them.
  1. We must adopt a shared accountability system where every stakeholder accepts accountability and responsibility for the impact that their behavior has on permanency delays and undesired outcomes (child welfare staff, attorneys, parents, judges). None of us is perfect. And none of us should think that we are more powerful or more responsible for the results than others.
  • Every delay or poor case outcome does not happen just because either the social worker or the parent failed to do what they were supposed to.
  1. We must ensure that the services that are provided to parents and families are appropriate to meet the identified needs.
  • We must be willing to have the cross-systems conversations about needs and services and how we choose to spend our limited resources.
  • In many cases, children remain in care longer than they need to for reasons far beyond the control of parents, judges, attorneys, and child welfare social workers. (reasons such as housing, mental health, and others)
  1. We must accept that no single stakeholder in this process has the only right answer to make sure that the system functions the way that it should.
  1. We must accept that no single stakeholder in this process has the power and authority to change the behavior of any of the other stakeholders. People are accountable and responsible for changing their own behavior. We must first make sure that we have done all that we can, and then seek to influence others through our relationship with them or through the appropriate accountability structure.
  1. Influence, open/honest communication, real partnership and true cooperation are the currency of success.
  1. There is no greater deprivation of physical liberty for a parent or a child than the act to restrict and sever their physical bond to each other. Every parent deserves active, sufficient and effective representation throughout the child welfare and dependency court proceedings.
  • We must be willing to put the resources behind making parent representation a reality for all. Attorney caseloads matter just as much as social worker caseloads matter.
  • Attorney training matters just as much as social worker training matters.
  • Attorneys having time to meet with parents matters just as much as social workers having time to meet with parents matters.

We must put public resources behind this effort for the good of the public.

Given the research and efforts of the ABA, NYU, and others we know that this can work.

But we also need the engagement of both the executive branch leadership and the legislative branch leadership in sates, counties, and cities across this country to buy in and support this effort.

We must form the public policy, not-for-profit, and community partnerships necessary to make family defense the reality in every jurisdiction in America; telling people who make the rules.

The possibilities for achieving success

Let’s look at two examples of what is possible.

The Washington State Office of Public Defense has a parent representation program for parents in dependency and termination cases who can’t afford an attorney. Based on the program’s success, what started out as a pilot program in three counties in Washington has spread to more than 20 other counties across the state.

Program evaluations have consistently revealed better outcomes for children and families. A 2010 case audit found a 39 percent increase in family reunifications.

In addition, an evaluation assessing the program’s impact for more than 12,000 children from 2004 to 2007 showed that participating counties had:

  • An 11 percent higher reunification rate than non-participating counties
  • 104 percent higher adoption rates, and
  • 83 percent higher guardianships rates

Researchers calculated that children reunified with their families spent 27 fewer days in foster care. Adoptions and guardianships were accelerated by approximately one year.

The 27 days each child did not spend in foster care because they were reunified with their family, saved Washington state a minimum of about $374 per child, the minimum monthly foster care maintenance payment. If all 8,231 children in the study who were reunified had spent 27 fewer days in foster care, the state would have saved a minimum of $3 million in foster care maintenance payments alone, in addition to savings from unspent court and administrative costs.

These improved outcomes have been attributed to process changes that have resulted in more efficient and effective case processing; reduced attorney caseloads enabling attorneys to spend more time with parents and on case preparation; better and more frequent communication between attorneys and parents; increased parent participation in services; and continued parent/child contact when reunification is not an option and adoption or guardianship is the best outcome.

Mississippi is moving to seven out of 82 counties.

Another example is the Center for Family Preservation in New York. Representing 80 percent of the parents in child welfare proceedings in Manhattan and 50 percent in Queens, the Center for Family Preservation surrounds its parents with a community of hope – a community advocacy team that includes an attorney, a social worker and a parent advocate.

The center’s objective is to achieve safe and expedited permanency while ensuring children stay connected to their family and community. Teams work together to make sure parents have the support they need while going through the court process; they provide for visitations with their children throughout the process; and they work with parents to create service plans that are tailored to their strengths and what they need.

This approach has resulted in:

  • Fewer children entering foster care
  • Increased reunification, and
  • Improved case resolutions

In 2011, 73 percent of the children whose parents were served by the center stayed out of foster care altogether.

For children who did enter foster care that year:

  • Their median stay was two months, significantly shorter than New York state’s median stay of 20 months.

Judges have noted that attorneys at the Center for Family Preservation have a more thorough knowledge of their cases and propose well-thought-out solutions, resulting in court orders that are tailored to families’ needs.

There’s always a cost benefit to being more efficient and more effective and when you talk about less time spent in the system. In 2010, the center’s services cost approximately $6,000 per family. A single year of foster care ranged from $29,000 to $66,000 per child.

We can do this. There is no question that this is hard work with many complex decisions to be made. But I know so many of you in this room who have overcome hard and tough decisions before.

We can no longer talk about helping children without also focusing helping their parents.

Together, we must also stop the common practice of blaming the system as if systems are self-created from some combination of random conditions that someone else is responsible for.

Blaming the system absolves us of our professional responsibility and allows us to believe that only if someone else gets better at what they do then things will be the way they should.

Systems are put in place, maintained, sustained and perpetuated by people – by us – through our decisions and actions, good and bad. And systems are changed by us, through our decisions and actions.

In blaming the system, we implicate ourselves. If it’s not working, we need to fix it. If we aren’t getting the results we want and if families aren’t getting the results they need, we need to not just improve the system, but we need to go beyond improvement and think and act in terms of innovation.

I am reminded of what so many parents have told me over the years: “What we do as a system has a lasting impact on the lives of children and families.”

They deserve the best we have to give – our best efforts, our best thinking, our best solutions, our best understanding. We have to provide them with the best opportunity to change the current circumstances in which they find themselves and improve their life outcomes.  We have to represent hope to children and families.


Now, imagine this.

Imagine yourself as a parent, who happens to be an Iraq War veteran, you’ve been anonymously reported for neglecting your five-year-old child. Since returning home from the war, you’ve noticed a change in yourself. At times you are challenged with feelings of fear, anger, sadness, depression. Deep down you know that you need help to be the person you want to be; to be the parent your child needs you to be. You consider reaching out for help, but, lacking the courage and support to take the next steps, that’s as far as it goes – just a thought in the back of your mind. After all, you’ve fought in a war. You can fight this too.

But when you find yourself standing before the court, you feel the full stigma and shame that come with being viewed as an irresponsible parent and an irresponsible person.

You feel everything and everyone are against you. That is until your attorney or social worker or advocate or judge asks one simple question: “Why is this happening in your life, and what do you think we can do about it?”

Someone wants to hear from you. Someone wants to hear your story as a parent. Someone wants to help gather all the pieces of your story to fully understand what has brought you and your child to this point.

In that one simple question, for the first time in this whole ordeal, you see hope. You feel you have a real chance to get your child back. You feel the people surrounding you in the courtroom are here to help you make that happen.

Children, parents, attorneys, the courts, CPS – we all have to work together toward the same goal. We have to work toward the goal of giving families hope and giving families a chance to be a better, stronger family together. We have to be family defenders.

Thank you and God bless.