Center for Family Advocacy making headway with goal

By Lynn Monson

Legal News

Organizers of a new legal program in Detroit say they are making progress toward a lofty goal - keeping children out of the state's foster care system.

The Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, or CFA, is sponsored by the University of Michigan and several Detroit-area foundations and agencies.

The premise of the new program, now six months into its initial three-year charter, is that a team of lawyers, working with a parent advocate and social worker, can solve many of the legal obstacles that lead to placement of children in foster care.

Vivek Sankaran, a clinical assistant professor of law at U-M and director of the CFA, says the program emerged as an attempt to improve the existing child protective services system, which has been in place for many years, is overloaded and frustrates many of those who work within it.

"It's a reactive system," he says. "We wait for something bad to happen, something really bad to happen, and then we do something."

A better method, he believes, is to move in before a child is placed into the foster care system. By digging into the family situation and determining the core problems below the surface issues, the legal team may be able to provide legal assistance, such as adoption proceedings, restraining orders and so forth, that can be the difference between keeping children with their family or removing them to foster care.

Sankaran's work with the new Detroit center follows with his work nationally on the issue. He is on the steering committee for the American Bar Association's National Project to Improve Representation for Parents Involved in the Child Welfare System. He also is involved with a similar project in the Michigan courts system.

Keeping kids with their birth families, or with so-called "fictive kin" (non-relatives who have close ties to the family), can take more layers of problem-solving than the current system has resources to provide, according to the CFA. But if that extra work means children can stay with their families rather than being split up into numerous foster care settings, it is a much-preferred outcome, staffers say.

As Sankaran puts it, "The state just does not have a good track record of being a parent to kids."

About three years ago, Sankaran began contacting the players in the system - social service agencies, Child Protective Services, Juvenile Court officials, lawyers - to gather input on how the system might be improved. He also consulted with U-M law professor Donald Duquette, a nationally respected child advocacy expert who directs the law school's Child Advocacy Law Clinic.

He raised funding for the program in Detroit to create "a tool that doesn't exist anywhere else in the country." That became the CFA, now staffed by a managing attorney, two staff attorneys, a parent advocate, a social worker, and an office manager.

The CFA's main office is on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, with a satellite office in the Osborn neighborhood at the Matrix Human Services Center on East McNichols in Detroit. The Osborn neighborhood was identified as the CFA's first area of priority because of its residents' needs and other neighborhood development initiatives there.

In its first five months since opening in July, CFA served 26 clients, helping a total of 66 children. It's the foundation of what center officials hope will evolve into a program that serves 200 families a year.

The 26 clients taken by the center (and 10 that were pending approval at the time the report was made in late November) were mostly referred to the center from the North Central division of the Department of Human Services, which serves the Osborn neighborhood. Other clients were self-referred and a small number came from Wayne County Juvenile Court and community-based organizations.

The legal needs of CFA's clients in its first five months, starting with the most common, are adoption, custody, landlord-tenant, unpaid fines or fees, guardianship, domestic violence, criminal legal issues, child support legal issues and divorce.

Then there are the social service needs, with by far the most common being "public assistance and basic needs." Others include housing, child's health, client health, child education needs, possible physical abuse by a parent or provider, client employment, child special education needs and client substance abuse.

The program's funding partners include the Wayne County Department of Child and Family Services, the Skillman Foundation, the McGregor Fund, the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan, Jon and Bobbie Bridge, the University of Michigan, the Center for Child and Youth Justice, and the Casey Family Programs.

CFA staffers implementing the new program call the current system "a culture of removal." Managing Attorney Tracy Green said many times a child is removed from the family first, then comes the deeper investigation, if at all.

While acknowledging that there is value to a cautious, "better safe than sorry" approach when child neglect and abuse are involved, the CFA staff wants to move beyond that and examine each case to a much deeper level, a process for which there is no standard formula for success.

Green and her staff work closely with the Department of Human Services in what amounts to a collaboration on a new approach. Calls to the Department of Human Services for comment about the new program were not returned.

During a recent series of interviews, CFA staffers described complex family cases full of unique situations that would challenge even the most accomplished problem-solvers who have years of experience navigating the social and legal systems.

One staffer recalled a family that had to move out of an unsafe house because it needed repairs that the landlord wouldn't perform. The landlord refused to return the family's security deposit, which they needed to secure another suitable house, so they moved into a relative's apartment too small for the size of the extended family.

That crowded, unsuitable housing situation in turn threatened to bring action from Child Protective Services.

The CFA social worker intervened to find new housing through a charitable organization in Detroit and a CFA attorney contacted the landlord to pursue the security deposit. The result was a family that stayed together rather than entering foster care.

"The nature of the issues our clients confront are very crisis-oriented," Green said. " ... they've been kicked out of a house and need a shelter, for example."

Once a client is accepted, Jamila Weathers, CFA's social worker, and the staff create a plan that lists goals, objectives and who is responsible for completing them - family members and CFA staffers. Then the social worker keeps the client on task by setting up reviews every couple of weeks.

The approach in most cases, Weathers says, is: "We got over that hurdle, let's get over the next one."

Sheniel Jackson of Detroit is a CFA client who wanted to re-unite teen-age twin sisters who had been separated in the foster care system for years. She had guardianship of one but needed help working within the system to bring the second into her home.

"Everywhere I went I kept hitting brick walls. (The CFA staff showed me) how I could get the things done that I needed to do ... at a much faster pace - like getting (the girls) in school, things like that," Jackson says.

"When it comes to lawyers and social workers, they have an ability to open doors that us regular people don't have."

Before joining CFA, staff attorney Rubina Mustafa worked in the juvenile justice system.

"These issues (involving foster care procedures) aren't real well known to most people, but they are so fundamentally important to our society. By making stabilized families, we really make a stabilized society," Mustafa says.

Green states CFA's goal directly: "We really want to eradicate foster care. It's a lofty goal, probably an impossible goal ... but we want to be a resource."

Sankaran uses a running metaphor.

"What we're hoping is that the culture will change, (that) we'll get off our heels (and move to) more of a sprint than the jog we're taking."

Green states CFA's goal more directly: "We really want to eradicate foster care. It's a lofty goal, probably an impossible goal ... but we want to be a resource."

Nancy Colon, CFA's parent advocate, once had children in the foster care system but eventually regained them.

"It was very fast-paced," she recalls. "There were no chances, no opportunities, to sit down and talk about this. It was just, 'We're removing that child.'"

She says many parents, after years of dealing with social and government agencies, "are afraid to be honest with the system because they know it is so judgmental." For example, a woman may not want to report domestic violence against her husband or boyfriend because doing so means the system will remove her children.

Colon focuses a lot on what she calls "barriers, goals and resources" for parents. She tries to build bridges with attorneys, social workers and agencies - anyone who can help.

"Every family, it's very unique. We have to find a different way to fit it into that family's particular needs."

The program is looking to expand its resources by using U-M Law School and School of Social Work students. It also is soliciting pro bono work from Detroit-area law firms.

Colon thinks the CFA program will succeed and expand over time.

"We're envisioning it real big, going nationwide," Colon says. "It's easier and better to keep kids out of the system than to pay all that money to keep them in (foster) care."

Sankaran uses a running metaphor.

"What we're hoping is that the culture will change, (that) we'll get off our heels (and move to) more of a sprint than the jog we're taking."

Green states CFA's goal more directly: "We really want to eradicate foster care. It's a lofty goal, probably an impossible goal ... but we want to be a resource."

Published: Fri, Feb 19, 2010


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