• May 2020
  • Vol. 21, No. 4

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Collaborating to Build Multidisciplinary, Family-Centered, Strengths-Based Courts

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

 "I invite the workforce to come together in a more coordinated way to harness our collective impact for good with a unified purpose of strengthening families…If we mobilize around helping families enhance their protective capacities to care for their own children, I believe we will have far more to celebrate" (Milner, 2018, para. 3).

When courts, child welfare agencies, and their partners use multidisciplinary, family-centered approaches, children can spend less time in foster care and achieve permanency, reunification, or guardianship more quickly. This article and the Agencies and Courts Putting Families Front and Center learning experience highlight two well-researched judicial strategies that employ this approach: multidisciplinary legal representation for parents and family treatment drug courts.

Multidisciplinary Legal Representation

A multiyear study compared the foster care and safety outcomes of 18,288 children whose parents were assigned to different models of representation in New York City family courts (Gerber et al., 2019). The parents served by the multidisciplinary law office had significantly better outcomes than those represented by solo panel lawyers. Compared with children of parents with solo panel lawyers, children of parents with multidisciplinary teams spent 118 fewer days on average in foster care, reunited more quickly with their families, and were permanently released to relatives more often.

Multidisciplinary law offices are being replicated across the county now that parental defense costs are reimbursable as a title IV-E expense. The Vermont Parent Representation Center, the Center for Family Representation, the Bronx Defenders, and the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy (DCFA) have all used the model with excellent results. For example, DCFA's evaluation showed that between 2009 and 2012, none of the 110 children served were placed into foster care. The National Alliance for Parent Representation has offered to help those interested in developing such services. Multidisciplinary offices use a team approach to work with families involved in the child welfare system both in and outside of the court. Teams may include the following:

  • An attorney to represent parents in family court proceedings
  • A social worker to help families connect to supportive services
  • A trained parent advocate with the experience of losing a child to foster care and later being reunited who can provide emotional support and guidance

Robin Lynde, a parent advocate with the Center for Family Representation, described her role. "Our organization helped Cherie [a birth parent] navigate the system…I walked a mile in her shoes with my children, and this fact helped us to connect on a deeper level…Seeing her with her son after he returned was the best gift we could have received."

Family Treatment Drug Courts

Family treatment drug courts (FTDCs) achieve positive outcomes for families with parental substance use disorders that contribute to child maltreatment. While traditional drug courts focus primarily on an individual parent, FTDCs recognize the impact of substance use disorders on the family system and use a coordinated team approach to meet the complex needs of the whole family. Teams may include child welfare services, substance use disorder treatment agencies, and other community services providers.

Hancock County, MS, Judge Trent Favre reflects on how the family-centered and strengths-based nature of his court helps parents reunite their family: "Parents are broken, ashamed, angry, or frightened when they first come to court. They need to see a face that shows love and concern, to hear a voice that cares. Most of all, they need to hear from the judge that I am ready to help them restore their family…Their caseworker, attorney, and CASA provided encouragement. The monthly hearings allowed them to share their progress and be encouraged…giving them hope…On the day their case closed, everyone was so proud. We were all transformed through their process."

A meta-analysis study of 17 FTDC interventions reviewed outcomes of 3,402 participants enrolled in FTDCs and 3,683 comparison participants (Zhang, Huang, Wu, Li, & Liu, 2019). FTDC participants had significantly better child, parent, and family well-being outcomes. When a comprehensive, family-centered approach was used to address children's and families' needs in addition to parents' recovery, children were more likely to achieve reunification without increasing the risk of subsequent foster care reentry or maltreatment rereport.

When courts and agencies within the child welfare system collaborate to strengthen families using multidisciplinary, family-centered approaches like those summarized in this article, everyone gets to celebrate better outcomes for children and families. 

Additional Resources

The following Capacity Building Center for States resources provide additional information and strategies for collaboration between agencies and courts:


Gerber, L. A., Pang, Y. C., Ross, T., Guggenheim, M., Pecora, P. J., & Miller, J. (2019). Effects of an interdisciplinary approach to parental representation in child welfare. Children and Youth Services Review, 102, 42–55. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2019.04.022

Milner, J. (2018). The need for an expanded view of the child welfare workforce. Children's Bureau Express, 19(7). https://go.usa.gov/xv9ty

Zhang, S., Huang, H., Wu, Q., Li, Y., & Liu, M. (2019). The impacts of family treatment drug court on child welfare core outcomes: A meta-analysis. Child Abuse & Neglect, 88, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2018.10.014

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