University of Michigan creates center to examine child advocacy practices
When children enter the child welfare system meant to protect them from abuse and neglect, they're usually granted legal representation.
But no consistent guidelines exist to designate their legal advocate or what the scope of that person's duties are.
A five-year, $5 million grant awarded to the University of Michigan Law School aims to address that gap. Awarded by the U.S. Children's Bureau of Health and Human Services, the grant creates the National Quality Improvement Center on the Representation of Children in the Child Welfare System at U-M.
"This opportunity that the federal government is offering is really extraordinary," said Don Duquette, a clinical professor and the director of the law school's program on children and the law.Â Duquette will lead the project.Â "This area of law, the jurisprudence is really underdeveloped. This will give us a chance to think it through."Â
The child welfare system encompasses all elements in place to protect children from abuse and neglect, including: Child Protective Services, which deals with foster care and kids with foster care; the courts; and private agencies, including psychologists and counselors who provide services.Â
The system's ultimate goal is to make kids safe, but also to return them to their natural families if possible, Duquette said.
While successes are noted in the child welfare system, its failures are more visible.
The Detroit Free Press published a list of 302 Michigan children that child protective officials had lost track of in the early 2000s, which prompted the state to change the way it keeps tabs on those children.
More recently, when a U-M archaeology professor unknowingly let his 7-year-old son drink a Mike's Hard Lemonade at a Detroit Tigers game in the spring of 2008, the case was characterized as child neglect by Child Protective Services. The professor's son was placed in foster care for several days, and the boy's parents went through hoops to remove him.Â
"It took a lot of advocacy to get this to happen," Duquette said of the alcoholic beverage case. "Some kids don't get the protection, some get way too much protection, so that it hurts them. The child advocate role can moderate the excesses in both directions."
In the first year, Duquette and others will examine existing models for representing children.
In Michigan, for example, lawyers are charged with representing a child's best interests rather than representing what the child wants - two competing schools of thought in child law,Â Duquette said.Â
In some but not all instances, lawyers in child welfare cases in Michigan are matched with non-lawyer volunteers who also look out for the children's best interests. The volunteers, trained through the Court Appointed Special Advocate program, aren't social workers and don't have legal tools.
Evaluating the outcome of child welfare cases involving lawyers partnered with a court-appointed advocate - compared to lawyers representing a child alone - would help the U-M team determine which model gets better results. Other states have different models for legal representation.
But what is a good result? For some children, being returned home is a good result, but if the home is unsafe, it's a bad outcome. The way outcomes are assessed will also get close attention from the U-M team, Duquette said.
Once promising models for representing kids are identified, Duquette and a team that will include two other U-M professors, a research assistant or two and several other partner organizations study the impactÂ of different models of legal representationÂ on kids.
Cathi Kelley, the director of the Washtenaw County Child Advocacy Center - which is run through Catholic Social Services and seeks to help children who have been sexually abused, said this kind of research would be useful. Kelley also works as a program manager for Families First in Jackson, Hillsdale and Branch counties.
"It varies from county to county and I'm sure from state to state as far as what kind of legal representation that kids get," said Kelley, who has worked for 15 years with the advocacy center. "It isn't very consistent. When people develop programs or make up policies, they do it with the best information that they have at hand, but I don't know of any solid longitudinal studies to influence policies. It would be a real benefit to have a longer-term study done."
Duquette said two book-length compilations on the state of the practices and the center's findings should provide guidance for federal statutes and funding priorities for the states.
"The U.S. Children's Bureau are counting on this being a beneficial project in terms of pushing the field forward and clarifying the role of the child's advocate," Duquette said.
Other partners on the project include: law professors Frank Vandervort and Vivek Sankaran; Planning and Learning Technologies of Arlington, Va.; the American Bar Foundation of Chicago; the National Association of Counsel for Children; and KidsVocie of Pittsburgh.