• February 2009
  • Vol. 10, No. 1

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Paralegals Promote Permanency

Pennsylvania has initiated a unique program that frees up time for both caseworkers and attorneys in child welfare agencies, focuses new resources on finding relatives for children in foster care, and, most importantly, expedites permanency for many children. How do they do it? The State's Legal Services Initiative (LSI) Program allows counties to place a trained paralegal within their child welfare agency to support caseworkers and attorneys in addressing legal barriers to permanency.

Pennsylvania's Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network (SWAN), through the prime contractors Diakon Lutheran Social Ministries and Family Design Resources, are responsible for hiring and training the paralegals, but counties play a critical role in the final selection of a paralegal who will best fit their team. Once in place, paralegals handle between 50 and 100 cases at a time, taking their direction from their LSI coordinator, county solicitor, and agency liaison.

One of the great benefits of this system is the variety of tasks that paralegals can perform. While they can't give legal advice or perform traditional casework duties, they can take care of much of the administrative paperwork that accompanies child welfare cases. For instance, paralegals can:

  • Prepare termination of parental rights (TPR) cases by handling petitions, hearing notices, scheduling, and witness preparation and assisting the attorney in court
  • Conduct diligent searches for missing relatives of children in foster care, using training and materials developed through an LSI committee
  • Help caseworkers implement concurrent planning (e.g., while a caseworker pursues reunification, a paralegal can work on an alternative goal)
  • Track cases through an electronic case management system available to LSI paralegals and their supervisors (especially useful for TPR cases)
  • Promote collaboration among counties through a statewide network of paralegals doing similar work

Since the launch of the program in 2002, counties with LSI paralegals in their child welfare division have seen significant improvements in the time required to achieve permanency for children. Recent statistics from the project show that the time between a child's goal change and TPR has been reduced an average of 35 percent, and delays between TPR and finalization have been reduced an average of 30 percent. Attorneys feel better prepared for court because of the paralegals' work, and caseworkers have more time to spend with their clients because they are freed from a great deal of paperwork.

LSI paralegals are currently placed in 15 counties throughout Pennsylvania, and 4 more counties may join the program before the end of the fiscal year (FY). Natalie Witt-Washine, an attorney and director of the program, notes that the success of the current program has led to a potential greater expansion through a State contract for FY 2009-2010.

One of the resources that has grown out of the program is the LSI Diligent Search Packet, designed to help paralegals, agency workers, and others find missing relatives for children in foster care. As part of a recent redesign, the new 2008 Diligent Search Packet now includes sections on international searches and the Indian Child Welfare Act, as well as enhanced information about online searching and resources. The packet can be downloaded for free:
www.diakon-swan.org/lsi/DiligentSearchPacket.pdf (882 KB)

For more information on Pennsylvania's paralegal program for child welfare agencies, visit the website at www.diakon-swan.org or contact Natalie Witt-Washine at nwitt@diakon-swan.org.

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