Providing Parents with the Right Kind of Legal Representation in Child Welfare Cases Significantly Reduces the Time Children Stay in Foster Care, New Study Finds

May 7, 2019

Martin Guggenheim, NYU School of Law School, (212-998-6460)

NEW YORK – Children spend significantly less time in foster care – with no compromise of safety – when their parents get high-quality legal representation, according to a major new study with broad implications for child welfare practices.

The study, published in Children and Youth Services Review, was conducted by New York University School of Law and Action Research.

The immediate focus of the study was to determine whether a new kind of representation for parents in child welfare cases, in which families are represented by an interdisciplinary team, makes any difference in the length of foster care stays for children and termination of parental rights.

The study showed that using this new kind of legal representation greatly reduces the time children spend in foster care.  This was accomplished with no change in child safety outcomes. That means many children are kept in foster care because parents are not provided with this kind of legal representation.

The study was made possible because in 2007, New York City awarded contracts to three public interest law offices – the Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services and the Center for Family Representation – to supplement parental representation in New York City Family Courts.  These offices give families a team made up of a lawyer, a social worker and, often a parent advocate who has been through the system herself or himself.

Before that, this representation was provided exclusively by experienced solo practitioners who must apply to an assigned counsel panel to be eligible for court assignment. They are paid by the hour. Since 2007, the Family Courts in New York City have assigned parents in child welfare cases either to a panel lawyer or a staff lawyer employed by one of the family defender offices. Both models comply with more of the American Bar Association’s best-practices for parental representation in child welfare than most jurisdictions.

The researchers examined over 28,000 child welfare cases in New York City between 2007 and 2014. They found that the kind of representation afforded to parents makes a dramatic difference in the length of time children spend in foster care. Giving parents the right kind of legal team results in families being reunited far sooner than would otherwise happen.

The family defense offices were able to secure the safe return of children to their families 43% more often in their first year than solo practitioners, and 25% more often in the second year. Giving parents lawyers from family defense offices allowed children to be permanently released to relatives more than twice as often in the first year of a case and 67% more often in the second year. These families may otherwise have been permanently dissolved or the children may have spent their childhood separated from their family.

New York City is a national leader in employing interdisciplinary family defense as the preferred method of providing legal representation for parents. It has helped reduce needless trauma experienced by families and children. It has also saved an enormous amount of money that would otherwise have been spent on children remaining unnecessarily in foster care. The study found that full implementation of a multi-disciplinary representation model would reduce the foster care population by 12 percent and annually reduce foster care costs by $40 million as compared with exclusive reliance on solo practitioners.

New York University School of Law's Family Defense Clinic has been a pioneer in developing the model for the interdisciplinary, holistic representation that characterizes the work of family defense law offices in New York City. With this study, there is now an opportunity to replicate the New York City method of providing representation for parents to the rest of the country.

The results are likely be even more dramatic in many other parts of the country, where the standards for legal representation are not as high – or where indigent parents don’t get a lawyer at all.

The study comes at a time when the federal government has made a crucial change in child welfare policy, allowing funds formerly restricted to foster care administrative costs to be used to reimburse half the cost of attorneys for parents and children in eligible cases.

The report can be found here: