The conversation about child welfare is changing, both locally and nationally. While over 440,000 children are in foster care on any given day in our country, society is beginning to question a model that for far too long has seen family separation as the solution to poverty and instability. In the words of our federal Children’s Bureau leadership, we are beginning to identify the “quieter, more far-reaching tragedy” of unnecessary family separation. We are beginning to ask why we have designed a system that waits to help until after, instead of before, a child is harmed. We are beginning to recognize that separating families causes significant trauma, and often undermines the well-being of the very children we seek to protect. We are beginning to understand the unique harms that over-reliance on foster care has on communities of color. We are beginning to recognize that connection is the key to addressing the trauma of separation, and that even when they must be separated for their safety, children do best when we honor and nurture their family connections.
Community Legal Services Family Advocacy Unit Provides Holistic, Effective Family Defense
The City of Philadelphia has the laudable goals of strengthening families, keeping children in their homes and communities, and safely reunifying separated families whenever possible. At Community Legal Services, our Family Advocacy Unit (FAU) works hard every day to make this vision a reality. For decades, the FAU has provided holistic family defense for parents involved in child welfare cases. Our interdisciplinary teams work to meet each client where they are, identify and support their unique strengths and capacities, and help their families overcome crisis and thrive.
What Does Success Look Like for Our Families?
Our model of client-driven advocacy means that our clients get to define for themselves their own goals and what success might look like. For many of the parents we work with, success could mean:
- Keeping Kids in their Homes and Communities. We know that children do best when they can safely stay in their own homes and their own communities. Children experience removal to foster care as an extraordinary trauma—one that not only separates them from their parents, but also from their siblings, their relatives, their neighbors, and their communities. Wherever possible, we work with our clients to keep their children safely at home and avoid the trauma of family separation.
- Keeping Kids with Kin & Loved Ones. When children must be separated from their parents because they cannot safely stay at home, we know that they do best when they are placed with someone whom they know and love. We help parents identify and mobilize their natural support network so that children are placed in homes that honor their need for family connection.
- Stabilizing and Strengthening Families. We know that strong and healthy parents raise strong and healthy children. We often meet our clients in times of crisis, but we know that they want what all of us want for our children: love, stability, and opportunities to grow and thrive. Very often, we are able to connect our families to the supports that they need, including treatment for mental health or addiction, and empower them to strengthen and stabilize their family.
How We Achieve Successful Outcomes for our Families
Research shows that interdisciplinary family defense models like ours significantly and safely reduce the time children spend in foster care. The keys to our success are:
- Interdisciplinary Model
Parents who are represented by the FAU benefit from interdisciplinary support. We know that in child welfare cases, some of the most important advocacy happens outside of the courtroom. Our attorneys work in teams with our social workers and paralegals to provide wrap-around support to our clients, both in and out of the courtroom. Our teams attend out-of-court meetings and advocate with service providers to ensure that the support that our clients receive is tailored to their unique needs.
- Partnerships In and Out of CLS
Our advocates work to maintain positive relationships with the Department of Human Services, the Office of Homeless Services, Community Behavioral Health, and other agencies that serve our families. These relationships help our advocates help our clients more quickly and efficiently. FAU clients also benefit from our in-house expertise across a wide array of legal issues. As the city’s largest provider of civil legal aid, we have unmatched capacity to identify and address the holistic legal needs of our clients. Our advocates often work with our Public Benefits, Housing, and Energy units to address the economic and legal barriers that can lead to lengthy foster care stays.
- Skilled Courtroom Advocacy
FAU attorneys are experts in child welfare law. They offer each client knowledgeable, skilled, and zealous courtroom advocacy. Advocates devote significant time on each case to investigating the facts and preparing a meaningful defense. Our attorneys are recognized nationally as experts in family defense, and provide training to other child welfare attorneys across the Commonwealth and the country. Our legal expertise also benefits our clients as we file appeals to protect their rights.
- Focus on Client Strengths
Most importantly, in a system that focuses much of its attention on a parent’s failings, we are committed to seeing each client’s strengths and potential. Our attorneys, social workers, and paralegals work to build loyal, trusting relationships with each of our clients, and our clients are provided with intensive support, counseling, and advocacy to meet their goals.
Client Spotlight: A Mother Facing Eviction and Utility Shut-Off
Ms. S. lost all of her utility services after her landlord tried to illegally evict her by cutting off her electricity, gas, and water. To make matters even worse, she became involved with the child welfare system after someone reported her to the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS) for living without utilities. Ms. S. was at risk of losing her 13-year-old son.
DHS informed Ms. S. that, if she was not able to get her utilities back on, they might have to remove her son from her care on an emergency basis.
Struggling to survive without utilities, and desperate to keep her son at home, Ms. S. came to CLS for help. Fortunately, CLS has expertise in multiple areas of the law and put together a team to fight for her rights.
Ms. S. explained to her advocates that her landlord had shut off all of her utilities in an effort to illegally evict her from her apartment. Her CLS Energy Unit attorney called PECO to request an inspection by a field services technician, who discovered that Ms. S.’s landlord did interfere with her electricity. The landlord had also managed to shut off the water supply connected to the water heater and shut off the gas inside the house. After some technical maneuvering, her water was restored and CLS successfully advocated for PECO to restore her electricity immediately. CLS also contacted PGW to send a technician to inspect and turn on her gas.
Her CLS Family Advocacy Unit attorney reached out to DHS who informed us that they would not remove Ms. S.’s child, in light of her reobtaining utility service. This was a big relief for Ms. S. and now she can focus on raising her teenage son. Ms. S. told CLS that she is “grateful to know that there are people like you guys out there helping people defend themselves and reestablish basic human rights.”
Client Spotlight: A Mother Struggling to Meet Her Child’s Special Needs
Ms. L., a single mother, became overwhelmed when her autistic teenager began running away from home. She did not know how to handle this new behavior and resorted to physically restraining her son. As a result, DHS removed her son from her home, and he was put in a placement for youth with significant special needs. At first, he decompensated significantly, refusing to speak, bathe, or eat at the new placement. The placement was far from Ms. L.’s home, a 2-hour ride each way on public transit, and she struggled with getting there. At first, the Community Umbrella Agency (CUA) only gave her a regular transpass, but she actually needed one that would work on regional rail, and so she could not afford the trips to see her son.
Ms. L.’s family defense team, including an FAU attorney and social worker worked with the CUA and the placement agency to connect better with Ms. L. and help her with more visits and improved transportation. Ms. L.’s CLS attorney even called SEPTA in order to straighten out all the questions about what route to take and what SEPTA passes were needed. Ms. L also completed parenting classes, attended medical and dental appointments with her son, and advocated effectively for herself and her son. She went above and beyond the court orders by taking an elective parenting course specific to parents of children with autism.
At a home visit, the family defense team realized that Ms. L.’s rent payments should have gone down when her son was removed because her rent is income-based, and her income went down when his SSI was cut off. They connected Ms. L. with CLS’ Housing unit to help resolve this issue. They also worked with the CUA and residential treatment team to make arrangements (such as door alarms and keyless locks) for how to ensure his safety and prevent her son from running away. Ms. L.’s son was reunited with her and is now safely at home.