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parents’ lawyers [ ]get paid very little, receive inadequate training, and carry high caseloads.” 54 In
his words, it is “well known to anyone in the [child welfare] field [ ] that the lack of quality parent
representation remains a blight on our child protection system.” 55 This means that countless cases
handled by members of NACC involve matters in which a child’s parent is unrepresented entirely
or is represented by a lawyer whom the child’s lawyer knows is unable to devote sufficient
attention to the case.
C. The Failure of Child Welfare Courts to Treat Parties with Dignity and Respect and
to Perform their Crucial Role of Providing a Meaningful Check on Agencies
Even if the systemic failure to provide parents with excellent legal representation is the
most visible aspect of unfairness in the operation of child welfare courts in the United States, many
other qualities of practice are equally disturbing. The child welfare courts with which I am most
familiar have, for too long, been conducted in unacceptable ways, apart from the failure to provide
excellent legal representation. Judges, court officers, case workers, and attorneys for agencies
speak and interact disrespectfully toward parents, revealing racial and class biases that pervade the
experience. A generation of law students who first observed practice under my supervision
invariably were horrified to see court in action. They are disappointed to see parents being shamed,
silenced, and disrespected from so many quarters.
They also are stunned to observe a dysfunctional court where meaningful decision-making
rarely occurs. It was more than reassuring when, in the late 1990s, a neutral team of evaluators
studied the New York City Family Court system for the first time and was equally as disturbed as
my students. This came about when New York City’s child welfare system became subject to
public scrutiny in the late 1990s because of a settlement in Marisol A. v. Giuliani. 56 That settlement
established a Special Child Welfare Advisory Panel, whose responsibility was to study Family
Court practice. The Panel issued the most critical and steel-eyed assessment of Family Court
practice ever published.
Though the pace seems fast and the atmosphere hurried, actual resolution of cases
in the family courts proceeds very slowly. The courts are characterized by crowded
dockets, long adjournments, and not enough attorneys to represent parents and
children. With rare exceptions, hearings lack sufficient docket time for a true
examination of the issues. A family that becomes the subject of an abuse or neglect
proceeding in these courts can expect to return to court repeatedly and to remain
involved in litigation for many months, and sometimes for years. A single fact-finding or dispositional hearing may require four to six separate dates and extend
over six months or more. It is not uncommon for children to be in care for a full
year, at which point an ASFA permanency hearing is required, without having had
a disposition of the original protective proceeding. 57
54 Vivek Sankaran, Moving Beyond Lassiter: The Need for a Federal Statutory Right to Counsel for Parents in Child
Welfare Cases, 44 J. LEGIS. 1, 8 (2017).
56 Marisol A. ex rel. Forbes v. Giuliani, 929 F. Supp. 662, 669 (S.D.N. Y. 1996), aff'd sub nom. Marisol A. v. Giuliani,
126 F.3d 372 (2d Cir. 1997).
57 N. Y. SPECIAL CHILD WELFARE ADVISORY PANEL, ADVISORY REPORT ON FRONT LINE AND SUPERVISORY PRACTICE
44-45 (Mar. 9, 2000) (on file with author) [hereinafter ADVISORY PANEL].