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The Family Advocacy Unit (FAU) at Community Legal Services (CLS) represents parents in civil child abuse and neglect cases, known as dependency cases. CLS provides high quality legal assistance to low-income Philadelphians who cannot afford legal counsel when they most need it. Created by the Philadelphia Bar Association in 1966, CLS helps thousands of low-income Philadelphians each year by fighting consumer fraud and predatory lending, preventing homelessness, ensuring fair treatment in the workplace, protecting the elderly and preserving families. The right to raise one’s own children is a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution. As a result, when the state seeks to intervene in the family relationship, the law requires strong procedural protections including the right to an attorney, a high evidentiary standard (clear and convincing) and the right to a full evidentiary hearing. Child abuse and neglect is a grave matter; so is removing a child from his or her home. Wrenching children from their parents and everyone they know and placing them with strangers is a serious matter for both the children and their families, with long-term emotional, psychological and legal consequences. Zealous advocacy for parents is necessary to ensure that there is not a rush to judgment and that all relevant and competent evidence is presented. As FAU attorneys, our job is to make sure that families are only separated or kept apart in cases that merit that result under the law. While the individual allegations vary, our clients are universally poor, mostly of color, and often suffer from substance abuse and mental health issues, or other cognitive limitations. Our clients are in the battle of their lives, fighting either to maintain custody of their children or to regain custody of their children after losing custody to the foster care system. The overwhelming majority of our clients are well-meaning and loving parents who are trying hard to be good parents to their children while under great stress and with few options. One of the most common questions posed to the attorneys in the FAU is, “How can you represent those bad parents?” It is true that many of our clients have demonstrated lapses in judgment or have unresolved serious problems that may have put their children at risk. However, it is also true that most of our clients do not intend their children any harm. Our clients’ poverty, combined with their own limitations and the lack of adequate resources to help and support their families, often put them in untenable situations. For example, “When I need to walk to the corner to use the pay phone to call the gas company, do I bundle up my four children and take them with me in the cold, or do I leave them at home where it’s warm?” When the four children are all under the age of 10, a bad decision in this situation can result in a dependency case for inadequate supervision. Another: “After spending the little I had saved on winter utility bills, if the house that I own and have lived in with my children for years now has a hole in the roof and a malfunctioning water heater, do we stay in my home while I save up for repairs or do we abandon our home and move to a shelter?” The inability to keep up with expensive repairs, high utility bills and the lack of affordable and appropriate housing in Philadelphia plays a large role in many of our cases. The FAU approaches its work from a holistic perspective, providing legal representation, advice, support and referrals to address the many needs of the parents we represent. Our team of attorneys, social workers and paralegals identifies resources for the parents and their children, supports the parents through tough times, and encourages the parents through their successes. The FAU attorney and the paralegal or social worker stay with the case until completion. Ideally, this means getting the family stabilized and out from under the Department of Human Services (DHS) and court supervision, or if the parent’s child has been placed in foster care, reunifying the family. Over the years, the FAU has helped thousands of parents reunite with their children or keep custody of their children. One such parent is Maria, a 25-year-old mother of a 3-year-old child who was temporarily placed in foster care. DHS filed a dependency case after voluntary services in Maria’s home, called SCOH (Services to Children in their Own Homes) did not improve her parenting skills and, consequently, the discipline problems she was having with her daughter. From DHS’ perspective, Maria’s daughter was at risk because Maria was “non-compliant” with the offered services. We discovered that Maria was not “non-compliant,” but rather, she was having trouble understanding her daughter’s problems and discipline needs and implementing what she was taught by her SCOH worker. Maria was mildly mentally retarded and illiterate, had been sexually molested as a child, and had suffered domestic violence at the hands of the father of her oldest child. She had never received the treatment and support she needed to overcome her trauma and develop healthy coping skills. She also had not received parenting skills training in a way that was accessible given her cognitive limitations. As a result of these factors, she was having difficulty parenting her daughter. The FAU helped Maria get into counseling to address her trauma history. (The therapist, stayed with the case for its duration. In Philadelphia it is not easy to find trauma-informed therapy, and Maria was also lucky that she, unlike most of our clients, did not have to deal with the high turnover of therapists in agencies that provide mental health care for the poor. The FAU played a key role in resolving Maria’s case by bringing competent evidence of her history before the court and using it to inform what services were requested from DHS and the court. For example, Maria’s FAU attorney asked the court to order that Maria and her daughter together attend Family School, an intensive parenting program run by Family Support Services. At Family School, Maria learned parenting skills that were taught using a hands-on concrete approach. In addition, she learned how to advocate for herself to get the services and resources she needed to successfully parent her children. Thanks to Family School and the other intensive services she received, Maria and her daughter are reunited and thriving. One of the most difficult aspects of representing parents in dependency cases is representing a parent in a termination of parental rights proceeding – often an inevitable result if the parent does not successfully meet the goals set by DHS and the court. As the U.S. Supreme Court has asserted, “terminating parental rights is final and irrevocable. Few forms of state action are both so severe and irreversible.” In 1997, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) with great fanfare. Among other requirements, ASFA created a federal statutory mandate: If a child has been in foster care for 15 out of 22 months, the state shall file a petition to terminate the parental rights unless compelling reasons exist. Termination of parental rights frees the child for adoption, which under the law is the preferable outcome if the child cannot be reunified with a parent. For the parents, termination means the permanent end of their relationship with their child. ASFA is flawed in a number of ways. For example, while it created strict timelines for parents to address the issues that resulted in the child’s placement in foster care, it did not include increased funding for needed services such as drug and mental health treatment, or tailored parenting education for teenage parents, parents with cognitive limitations, or other populations with special needs. The FAU therefore must zealously advocate for parents in individual dependency cases, while simultaneously engaging in policy and systems advocacy work. In doing so, the FAU seeks to improve the quality and accountability of supportive services, and facilitate the expansion and creation of new programs. If the child welfare system asks parents to rehabilitate and directs them to programs, then it is critical that these programs provide meaningful help to the families they purport to serve. Clients like Maria demonstrate the significance of dedicated parent representation. It is challenging work to zealously represent a parent during an extremely emotional and stressful time while securing quality, meaningful help for them from a variety of citywide systems. But it is so rewarding to see a client through the lowest low of involuntarily losing custody of her child to the highest high of successfully reuniting her family. SARAH KATZ is a staff attorney in the Family Advocacy Unit at Community Legal Services Inc. Katz represents parents in Philadelphia who are involved with the child welfare system. She can be reached at 215-981-3765 or [email protected].

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