Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2007

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NACC Certifies Nation's First Child Welfare Law Specialists

By Marvin Ventrell and Amanda George Donnelly

The National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC) has certified the first class of child welfare law specialists (CWLS) in the country. Eighty-five attorneys who represent children, parents, and state welfare agencies in abuse, neglect, and dependency cases received specialty certification in child welfare law in June 2006.

These lawyers were recognized publicly at the NACC National Children's Law Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, in October, and NACC is proud to list them with their well-earned credentials on its website. Legal specialty certification, similar to medical board certification, is awarded to attorneys who demonstrate competence in a recognized legal specialty by satisfying the requirements of good standing, substantial involvement, education, peer review, writing, and substantive knowledge. Specialists must pass a comprehensive child welfare law written examination. By attaining specialty certification, lawyers identify themselves to the court, bar, and community as having the training, knowledge, and skill to practice law in a specialized area.

The American Bar Association recognized child welfare law as a legal specialty in 2001 and accredited NACC as the child welfare law certifying body in 2004. The U.S. Children's Bureau sponsored NACC's pilot program--conducted in California, Michigan, and New Mexico--to certify the nation's first child welfare law specialists. Designed to improve outcomes for children and families in the foster care and court systems by improving the quality of legal services, child welfare law specialty certification is a component of NACC and federal initiatives to produce safety, permanence, and well-being for our nation's foster care population.

Because good outcomes depend on quality legal advocacy, NACC has been dedicated to providing children with well-trained, competent, and knowledgeable legal advocates since its inception in 1977. As part of that effort, NACC has developed attorney training programs and promoted national collaboration and communication among child welfare law attorneys.

NACC child welfare law certification is available to attorneys who serve in the role of child's attorney (including guardian ad litem, law guardian, and attorney ad litem), parent's attorney, and agency/department/government attorney. The specialization area as approved by ABA is specifically defined as
the practice of law representing children, parents or the government in all child protection proceedings, including emergency, temporary custody, adjudication, disposition, foster care, permanency planning, termination, guardianship, and adoption. Child Welfare Law does not include representation in private child custody and adoption disputes where the state is not a party.
Lawyers certified in child welfare law must meet the rigorous criteria established by the NACC National Certification Advisory Board and approved by ABA. Lawyers certified in child welfare law must be knowledgeable in state and federal laws applicable to child protection and foster care. A specialist must also understand relevant principles from child development and psychology regarding individual and family dynamics, and appropriate treatment modalities of child abuse and neglect, and be capable of recognizing the professional responsibility and ethical issues that arise out of the children's status. They must also be proficient in the skills of interviewing and counseling child clients.

To be certified, attorneys must meet the following standards:
  • Good standing. The applicant must furnish evidence of his good standing in the state of his admission, or if admitted in more than one state, in the state of his principal practice.

  • Substantial involvement. The applicant must make a satisfactory showing of substantial involvement relevant to child welfare law, with at least 30% of her time involved in child welfare law during the three years preceding the application.

  • Educational experience. The applicant must demonstrate substantial participation in continuing legal education relevant to child welfare law in the three years immediately preceding application. Topics deemed relevant to child welfare law include but are not limited to substantive and procedural law, trial practice, alternative dispute resolution, child abuse and neglect, child development, and family dynamics and relationships.

  • Peer review. The applicant must submit with his application the names of at least eight references who are substantially involved in child welfare law and familiar with the applicant's work, including at least one judge or magistrate and four attorneys who can attest to the applicant's competence in child welfare law. A reference from an individual who has served as opposing counsel is encouraged.

  • Writing sample. The applicant must submit a copy of a trial court memorandum, appellate brief, or article demonstrating legal analysis in the field of child welfare law. This is a substantial writing sample, stating facts and arguing law, submitted or drafted no more than three years before the date of application.

  • Examination. After satisfying all other certification standards, the applicant must pass the NACC child welfare law written competency examination.
Attorney certification is the clearest example of moving our profession from cause to profession, a theme encompassed by NACC's mission. Through the development of social awareness, substantive law, law school curricula, standards of practice, and career paths, what was once only a fringe professional interest has become a legal specialty. This concept has come to fruition with the certification of the nation's first child welfare law specialists.

Last October, NACC began the project's second phase to expand it beyond the pilot states. The NACC certification preparation course was offered to attorneys and court personnel as a preconference session to the NACC national conference in Louisville. Additionally, the NACC treatise, Child Welfare Law and Practice: Representing Children, Parents, and State Agencies in Abuse, Neglect, and Dependency Case (available from Bradford Publishing) is designed as a resource for child welfare attorneys and a study guide for those preparing for the NACC child welfare law certification exam.

Marvin Ventrell is President/CEO, and Amanda George Donnelly is Staff Attorney and Resources Director, National Association of Counsel for Children, Denver, Colorado. For more information on Child Welfare Law Certification, contact NACC toll-free at 888/828-NACC, or visit

"Other Voices" provides leaders and experts from national organizations that share CWLA's commitment to the well-being of children, youth, and families a forum to share their views and ideas on crosscutting issues.

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