• February 2020
  • Vol. 21, No. 1

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Why Multidisciplinary Advocacy Teams Are an Essential Tool to Keep Families Together

Written by Vivek S. Sankaran, clinical professor of law, University of Michigan Law School

A parent in Detroit lost her five children to foster care because she was a victim of domestic violence. She was summoned to a family team meeting, at which she was informed her children would be placed in foster care. All alone at the meeting, she felt "confused, lost, and hopeless." That night, her children were placed in four different foster homes. For the next month, she didn't see them. Overnight, in her words, "she lost her children, job, home, and dignity." It took her 15 months to get them back.

We must do better. Can we dream of a different world, one in which parents can work with multidisciplinary advocacy teams to prevent the separation of their families? In the example above, a lawyer could have helped the mother obtain a custody and protection order to protect her and her children from her abusive partner. A social worker could have helped her maintain housing and employment while also connecting her with domestic violence counseling. A parent partner could have kept her engaged with the process and accompanied her to meetings. And all three could have helped her maintain her dignity and her family.

Isn't this the world we want to create for families? 

Research tells us that taking a child from parents is perhaps the most invasive intervention we can impose. It also tells us that most child welfare cases don't involve the serious physical and sexual abuse that necessitates immediate removal but instead require more nuanced decisions about what might be best for children. We also know that in these less urgent cases, children are far better off staying with their families than entering foster care. 

Only one conclusion can be drawn from this information: To get the best outcomes for children, we need high-quality attorneys, social workers, and parent partners to work with families—at the earliest time possible—to create alternatives to family separation, present agencies and courts with all the information about a family, and keep parents engaged in the process. Justice for children demands this. 


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