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Posted on Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 5:58 a.m.

University of Michigan creates center to examine child advocacy practices

By Juliana Keeping

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. 


Don Duquette stands outside his office in the reading room of the law school in Ann Arbor.

Angela Cesere |

"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. Duquette will lead the project. "This area of law, the jurisprudence is really underdeveloped. This will give us a chance to think it through." 

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. 

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. 

"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, Duquette said. 

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 impact of different models of legal representation 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.

Juliana Keeping covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-2528. Follow Juliana Keeping on Twitter



Fri, Mar 19, 2010 : 11:55 a.m.

The volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) help support and represent children and their interests in the court system. Thats important work in an adversarial system that means well but doesnt always do well for the children. I look forward to the results of the above study. Through personal experience, volunteer advocates have a profound impact on the system. Thanks to their special legal and informed authority, CASA volunteers are uniquely positioned to work the system, and work with the system, to help make things happen. True legal authority naturally lies with the court; the volunteer is simply authorized to talk to anyone and everyone who in their official capacity might impact the outcome for a child. It is their unique perspective, however once it is understood that they observe, assess, and speak always and only for the child that enables our volunteers to consistently move people to do whatever they can to help secure a safe, permanent home for a child. We know that the CASA model works. We also know that recruiting and training CASA volunteers to serve more children will have enormous benefits for the individual children and for society as a whole, which pays a high price for child abuse and neglect. Unfortunately, not every child in Washtenaw in need of a CASA volunteer advocate has one. If you are interested in volunteering or supporting Washtenaw CASA, please visit our website at be a voice for a child!


Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 11:16 a.m.

OverTaxed wrote:. First of all, it's a public university we fund. Shouldn't issues like this be addressed as normal educational business.. Professor Duquette and the Family Law Clinical Law Program already perform an educational function by permitting law students to represent indigent clients in Michigan courts. Because the students are not licensed, clinical law programs require close supervision by licensed attorneys. Both the welfare of the child and the parental rights are at stake. Professor Duquette already has more than a full-time job.. This study won't contribute to the education of law students; it will generate information for the federal government, particularly with objective measurements of outcomes in child neglect and abuse interventions by the state. The federal government will use that information to direct policy and funding to the most effective and efficient system of child advocacy. When the system fails-- when the courts unnecessarily remove a child from his or her parents' custody, or when a parent's abuse or neglect of a child causes permanent physical or psychological harm, that results in more government expense by way of prison costs for delinquency and/or social support for the affected child. The primary beneficiary of this study is the U.S. government and the taxpayers, not the students at the law school.. So it costs $5 Mil to create models, why don't the people working on the project donate their time for the good of children?. I'm sure Professor Duquette and the Washtenaw CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) program would appreciate volunteers like you donating your time to attend court hearings and meet with children to advocate for their best interests. Here's the website:.


Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 9:18 a.m.

Why does the university need $5 Mil to study this situation. First of all, it's a public university we fund. Shouldn't issues like this be addressed as normal educational business. The university promotes it's support of social justice, why not use issues as this for practical law school studies. I am for helping children, but many use children issues for profit, due to it's emotional effects of gaining contributions. So it costs $5 Mil to create models, why don't the people working on the project donate their time for the good of children?

Dell Deaton

Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 8:14 a.m.

You lay out the issues and challenges in addressing them quite well here, Ms Keeping. It's a massive struggle in the questions that come before our divorce courts as well. Yet it seems that every few years, initiative is taken to study the situation, draw conclusions, with changes large and small to follow. Is anyone concurrently looking at ways to address problems further upstream, perhaps in recognition that at the horse-out-of-the-barn stage, there's only so much any one or intervention can achieve?