Pilot program aims to prevent child welfare removals
Hampden County legal aid program addresses early warning signs
AS AN ATTORNEY for Community Legal Aid in Springfield, child welfare attorney Madeline Weaver Blanchette is used to seeing families mid-catastrophe, after a child has been removed by child protective services.
Last week, Blanchette found herself in a far different position – trying to intercede early enough to prevent a removal in the first place.
Blanchette is the lead attorney on a new Community Legal Aid pilot program, the first of its kind in Massachusetts and one of a handful of similar programs bubbling up around the country. The goal is to provide families in Hampden County with legal support at the start of their involvement with the Department of Children and Families, so the agency never gets to the point of removing a child. If the year-long pilot is successful, attorneys hope money will become available to expand it statewide.
“The vast majority of the cases with DCF are neglect cases, and many of those are just manifestations of poverty,” Blanchette said. “The wonderful thing about this pilot is we can basically harness the existing units that are already within Community Legal Aid…and work with clients to fix those substantive areas, and then hopefully have the result of being able to close their case with DCF.”
The Department of Children and Families’ most recent annual report for fiscal 2021 found that Latino children are nearly three times more likely than White children to have an open case with DCF, and Black children are two-and-a-half times more likely. Black and Latino children are also more likely than White children to enter an out-of-home placement.
Storrow said studies have documented the trauma that occurs when a child is removed from a home. While removal is sometimes necessary – particularly in cases of abuse – there are other times when having services in place could avoid that trauma.
For example, homelessness can lead to a child being unable to attend school regularly or access needed mental health treatment. If a family can stay in their home, the child might be better able to access consistent education and services. A family where domestic violence is a problem might need help getting a restraining order against an abuser to create a safe home environment. If a parent cannot safely parent due to a substance abuse or mental health problem, it might be possible to get a temporary court-appointed guardian in place, potentially another family member, and avoid a foster care placement.
Storrow said the group developed the idea of “pre-filing representation,” giving clients free access to legal services before they would typically become eligible. “Pre-filing representation has the advantage of giving a family a legal team, not just a lawyer but a lawyer and a social worker and a parent advocate with lived experience,” Storrow said. “That legal team meets with the family, finds out what the family thinks they need, and helps them access the services.”
The program was launched with a $155,000 grant from the Court Improvement Program, a project administered by the Supreme Judicial Court aimed at improving outcomes for children in the child welfare system. Case manager Sophie Chambers, a social worker, is the program’s only full-time employee, while Blanchette and parent advocate Amanda Echeverri, who has lived experience with DCF, are working on it part-time.
The program got its first two clients last week, one a referral from the Department of Children and Families and the other internally through Community Legal Aid.
The first step in any case is for Chambers to assess the client and determine what they need. Blanchette will then find an attorney within Community Legal Aid to address any legal problems.
Blanchette said the needs many of these families have are areas where Community Legal Aid has expertise – accessing public benefits, preventing eviction, or advocating for educational services for a child with special needs. Attorneys can also mediate the relationship between a family and DCF.
“We’re really trying to have it be client-centric, so we’re trying to identify what the person actually feels like would be helpful,” Blanchette said.
Corrine Ryan, managing attorney at Community Legal Aid’s Springfield office, said child removals too often are poverty related, and once a child is removed, families get caught up in court backlogs. In his 2017 state of the judiciary address, the late SJC chief justice, Ralph Gants, referred to a “constitutional emergency” in Hampden County, noting that while a hearing is required 72 hours after a child is removed from a home, about half the hearings get postponed because attorneys cannot be found in time to represent the parent and child.
“For far too long we’ve seen cases filed against families where the children are in danger of being removed or have been removed, but it’s too late for us to target the underlying issues that led to the removal,” Ryan said.Hampden County officials have been talking to officials in other states with similar programs, including New Jersey, Iowa, California, and Michigan.
“As a nation, we’re awakening to the problems with the child protection agencies and foster care system,” Ryan said. “Poor families are penalized because they don’t have access to services. It’s insult upon injury – you’re taking the kids and exacerbating the problems but not fixing the problems.”