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December/January 2019Vol. 19, No. 10Beyond the Table: The Need to Work With Courts and the Legal Community to Improve Child Welfare Outc

Written by David Kelly, Children's Bureau.

For years, the Children's Bureau and our national partners have promoted and supported the notion that courts and the legal community should be involved in child welfare planning and improvement efforts. There has been a common refrain that when it comes to child welfare system improvement work, "courts must be at the table." In many jurisdictions, this has translated into inviting representatives from the Court Improvement Programs (CIP), the Children' Bureau's sole dedicated grant program for the judicial branch of government, to attend meetings, participate in committees or workgroups, and review or react to decisions the child welfare agency has made. Make no mistake: this has been an important developmental phase and contributed value. However, it falls far short of what is necessary to reshape child welfare enough to dramatically improve outcomes for children and families. Simply stated, "being at the table" in its most common incarnation is not good enough, and while the CIP is a critical partner, legal and judicial involvement must be expanded to include attorneys who represent children, parents, the child welfare agency, and judges who hear child welfare cases.

Rather than simply being at the table, the CIP and legal and judicial community must be actively involved with planning the menu, shopping for the food, cooking, and critiquing the meal.


The child welfare system is much larger than the child welfare agency alone, and federal statute mandates judicial involvement and oversight. Moreover, attorneys for children, parents, and the child welfare agency all share a common interest in ensuring that reasonable efforts are made to prevent unnecessary removals of children from their families. For children who must enter care, attorneys for all parties help ensure parent, child, and youth engagement and empowerment; engage in joint problem-solving; and work together to ensure no child or youth stays in care a day longer than absolutely necessary. In this light, reasonable efforts are a common goal. It is in no one's interest to remove children unnecessarily or keep children and youth in care longer than absolutely necessary.

Likewise, judicial decision-making in child welfare is critical and can be a tremendous help or formidable barrier to improving outcomes. Judicial decision-making is largely driven by two factors: (1) judicial philosophy or vision of what child welfare is intended to accomplish and (2) the information presented to the court. Involving judges in crafting the vision for your system—one that that values strengthening families and avoiding trauma to children—is crucial to informing and shaping the former and can help mitigate tendencies to remove children when not necessary. No single factor affects the information that informs judicial decision-making greater than quality legal representation.

Conversely, failure to involve the legal and judicial community in planning efforts and decision-making can create obstacles and frustrate progress due to misunderstanding, differences in philosophy, or perceptions of the role or the larger purpose of child welfare.

With this message and this entire dedicated edition of Children's Bureau Express, we urge all readers to redouble their commitment and efforts to work with the legal and judicial community at the state and local levels in all child welfare program planning and improvement efforts.