by Elizabeth Gibbons
Lack of legal representation for parents creates unnecessary delays and hardships, hindering child welfare workers and keeping families apart. In Mississippi, 75% of parents who are financially challenged and involved in the child welfare system do not have legal counsel or representation, making it one of only two states not to offer any legal aid to parents struggling to maintain their families. Their children are provided with legal counsel and the state maintains their own lawyers, but parents are forced to advocate for themselves, often with little information. State laws, not federal laws, determine the rights of the parents in child-welfare cases; often, the parents must rely on private lawyer, disproportionally affecting parents who are experiencing financial hardship and relying on government services. Mississippi is the nation’s poorest state, where nearly one in three children lives below the poverty line. The lack of legal resources, coupled with the severe lack of government resources for families struggling with food insecurity, mental illness, homelessness, or drug addiction, leaves parents caught between a rock and a hard place. If legal counsel is, indeed, made available, lawyers often juggle hundreds of clients and have very little training in child welfare law. Critical studies have shown that when a parent has a trained lawyer, children spend less time in foster care, reducing the burden on social workers and foster homes and maintaining family stability. However, Mississippi remains one of only six states that does not have state laws giving parents the right to an attorney—which helps to hobble the child welfare system and hinders families that are experiencing financial hardship.
Since 2003, the New Jersey child welfare system and Department of Children and Families has been under investigation in an attempt to rehabilitate a stalled system. Despite praise for Commissioner Allison Blake, New Jersey DCF did not do very well in its last inspection. From January 1 through June 30, 2017, according to a recent article on NJ.com, the DCF did not make any progress toward stated goals, and lost ground in their goal to reunite families or re-home children who had been removed. Siblings, parents, and families missed crucial visits and caseworkers did not schedule meetings with families under investigation. Despite improvements in the 15 years of investigation and rehabilitation, the quality of case work is still low and ineffective, generating poor results. However, the most recent report does state that youth exiting foster care had significant housing plans and that the mental health system had been redesigned to better serve children with developmental disabilities, improvements that show there is hope for the child welfare system.
Mary Beth Bonaventura, the director of the Indiana Department of Child Services, recently resigned with a scathing letter demanding more money for the DCS—a letter that, according to a January 11th opinion piece in the Indiana Star, had “all the subtlety of a ransom note.” Indiana spends an average amount of money on their child protective services, but the state is facing an opioid epidemic that it cannot handle and its child removal rate is the fourth highest in the United States. However, evidence from two major studies show that children fare better in their own homes compared to children in foster care who have been similarly maltreated, suggesting that social services should promote therapy, education, and treatments to increase family stability instead of relying on removals. Even infants who have been exposed to narcotics fare better when they are kept with their mothers, assuming the mother has access to government resources and drug treatments. Unfortunately, Indiana’s propensity to remove children from their families has decreased the state’s ability to bolster drug treatments or focus on children in much more dangerous situations.
Elizabeth Gibbons is CWLA’s editorial intern. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.