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December/January 2019Vol. 19, No. 10On Legal Representation

A video produced by the Capacity Building Center for Courts features a presentation recorded for a Court Improvement Program work session. Vivek Sankaran, director, Child Advocacy Law Clinic, University of Michigan Law School, discusses how child welfare agencies and the legal and judicial systems are tasked with helping families in danger of separation stay together by engaging them and supporting them throughout the course of their cases.

The video provides a brief overview of the key elements of procedural justice, which, in the case of child welfare, is based on treating litigants and their families with respect and giving them the opportunity to share their voices during court proceedings that may determine the future of their families. These key elements include the following:

  • Trust in the motives of the authorities: Do litigants believe that their case worker, attorney, and judge are all being fair? Do litigants believe that those individuals really want to help them reunify with their children? Do their actions match their words?
  • Fairness and control: Are the attorneys and courts utilizing fair procedures in their decision-making? For example, are attorneys fully able to present the families' arguments? Do families feel they have control over the process? Do families feel they have adequate legal representation?

The video challenges child welfare agencies and the legal and judicial systems to assess whether their jurisdictions adhere to these elements of procedural justice and to find ways to involve families in the case-planning process and beyond.

Obstacles to these activities include the following:

  • Ensuring these families have access to adequate and high-quality counsel immediately upon the filing of their petition, if not before.
  • Relying less on third parties (e.g., guardians ad litem, court-appointed special advocates) to provide input in decision-making on a case by asking families for their input into their plan for reunification.
  • Giving an opportunity for the parents to tell their stories.
  • Referring to these parents and children with respect during court and while interacting with them (i.e., using their names and not simply "the birth parents" or "the respondents").
  • Engaging parents in the court process as well as in activities outside of court, such as school meetings, and more.

To view the video, go to