PROVIDE COUNSEL TO PARENTS AT THE BEGINNING OF ANY DCFS INVESTIGATION
CURRENT PRACTICE WITH PARENT COUNSEL DURING DCFS INVESTIGATIONS
Currently, DCFS conducts an initial investigation before parents’ counsel is appointed. In many cases, the child has already been removed from a parent’s custody before a parent has a chance to talk with a lawyer. Parent counsel is appointed at the first hearing, when the judge determines whether a child should be removed from the custody of their parent or guardian and taken into custody of DCFS, or, if that’s already happened, if removal should continue.(1) At this point, social workers have already conducted an investigation and written their reports.(2)(3) Many days may pass between the opening of an investigation and the first court hearing. During that time period, families do not have any representation and are often unaware of the allegations made against them. Oftentimes, they do not see the extensive, complex paperwork explaining the allegations until minutes before the hearing. Compounding the problem for many parents, this paperwork is provided only in English. At the courthouse, parents have just a few minutes to discuss the details of their case with their court-appointed attorney before coming before a judge.
PRE-PETITION INTERDISCIPLINARY REPRESENTATION AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO CURRENT PRACTICE
While parents can seek court-appointed counsel at the initial dependency hearing, parents would greatly benefit from high-quality, pre-petition, interdisciplinary legal representation from the first moment of a DCFS investigation. This type of representation is pre-petition because it would begin from the initiation of DCFS contact with a family, rather than as a case is filed in court. It is interdisciplinary because it would involve attorneys working alongside social workers, housing advocates, mental health clinicians, and other providers to ensure that families can begin to meet their most urgent needs and avoid having their children removed. In contrast with current representation models, these teams would carry a small enough caseload that they could devote adequate time and attention to each family’s needs. Providing counsel to parents during the early stages of the family regulation process helps ensure parents understand the allegations against them, their due process rights, and know what to expect as the investigation unfolds. Further, when attorneys (with specific expertise in dependency proceedings) partner with social workers and parent advocates, this interdisciplinary team can help identify and address the issues that may have led to the family’s contact with the system, such as needs related to housing, healthcare, or government benefits. Parents also would know to bring people who can speak up on their behalf, and they would have time to prepare family members to step up as caregivers in the event that the child is placed or remains in foster care.
The pre-petition interdisciplinary representation model has shown great promise in jurisdictions outside California.(4) In an evaluation of a pilot program in Detroit, none of the 110 children who received services during the evaluation period entered foster care, and none of their families experienced a subsequent abuse or neglect investigation.(5) New Jersey has achieved comparable results.(6) A study looking at more than 9,500 system-impacted families in New York City (where this model is used in 90 percent of cases) found that the children of those families receiving interdisciplinary representation spent, on average, 118 fewer days in foster care.(7)
Importantly, in all eligible Title IV-E cases, the federal government will now reimburse half the cost of representation for parents and children. As such, it is likely that the provision of pre-petition, interdisciplinary representation would either be cost-neutral or save the County and state money because fewer children would end up in foster care or spend extended periods of time in care.
WE ARE ASKING THE BOARD OF SUPERVISORS TO: ABANDON CURRENT PARENT COUNSEL PRACTICE AND ADOPT A PRE-PETITION INTERDISCIPLINARY MODEL THAT SUPPORTS AND STRENGTHENS RATHER THAN PUNISHES AND HARMS FAMILIES.
As the examples cited above make clear, pre-petition interdisciplinary representation can safely keep families together, avoiding the enormous trauma of needless placement with no compromise of safety. This model recognizes that parents who are reported to DCFS are often in need of support to strengthen their families, not punitive measures that rip them apart. Providing parents with legal counsel at the beginning of a DCFS investigation helps ensure that they are aware of their rights and can potentially provide insight that leads to support and services that help keep families together. The Board of Supervisors should adopt this model and provide sufficient resources to make it available for all dependency cases in Los Angeles County.
1. See Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 317(d) (“Counsel shall represent the parent, guardian, child, or nonminor dependent at the detention hearing and at all subsequent proceedings before the juvenile court.”). Counsel are generally not appointed by the court before a detention hearing. See Cal. Judicial Council, The Juvenile Dependency
Court and You, A Guide for Parents 6 (2014) (“The first time you go to court, a judge will give you a lawyer, if you can’t afford one.”).
2. See Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 319(b).
3. See Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 315.
4. See ABA Center on Children and the Law & National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Supporting Early Legal Advocacy Before Court Involvement in Child Welfare Cases (2020) at https://www.ncjfcj.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/early-legal-advocacy-2.pdf
5. Lucas Gerber, et. al., “Effects of an interdisciplinary approach to parental
representation in child Welfare” Children and Youth Services Review, 102 (2019), Table 1, p.44
6. See Gianna Giordano & Jey Rajaraman, Increasing Pre-Petition Legal Advocacy to Keep
Families Together, American Bar Association (Dec. 15, 2020),
7. Gerber, note 5, supra.