Free Legal Hotline Empowers California Foster Caregivers

The below is reproduced from the Chronicle of Social Change with the permission of Fostering Media Connections. It was originally published here.

As an advocate for foster youth and foster parents, I’ve heard many foster parents complain that they feel voiceless when it comes to decision making and input into the well-being of a child in their care. If a child’s been with the foster parents for a time, they will have bonded, and the foster parents will be intimately aware of the child’s needs and sensitivities.

Where is a foster parent to turn for quick, inexpensive guidance when they feel their input is ignored or that decisions are being made that do not reflect the child’s best interest?

In California there’s Advokids, a legal non-profit that offers the only telephone hotline (877-238-4543) providing free legal information to anyone concerned about a child living in foster care.

Advokids founders believe they are the only hotline for caregivers of their kind in the country.

From June 2015 to June 2016, Advokids opened 558 new hotline cases and served 743 new foster children. Over 95 percent of hotline callers sought assistance with bringing information to the court on behalf of a child under three years of age. Of these hotline cases, 65 percent presented issues of threatened placement disruptions and/or compounding systemic trauma.

Hotline staff provide callers with legal education about their caregiver rights, point the caller to legal documents on the Advokids’ website and even describe how to complete and file the paperwork to get crucial information about the child to the judge.

“The need for this advice is great. So much so that we get calls from other states, but state child welfare laws vary. Unfortunately, we can’t be experts in the laws across all 50 states,” explains co-founder and Deputy Director Jan Sherwood.

Given their high volume of contact with so many cases, Advokids has gleaned substantial insights into typical system weaknesses and communication breakdowns.

“So often foster parents are convinced that social workers and their supervisors are the ultimate decision makers when it comes to a child in care,” says co-founder and Executive Director Margaret Coyne. “In California that is simply not true, and we suspect it is similar in other states. Too often, problems in a child’s case are not identified and communicated effectively to the juvenile court. Judges need access to letters from caregivers, pediatricians and therapists to make informed decisions.”

Advokids uses the hotline as a starting point to “teach people how to get to the courthouse, file the necessary paperwork and share critical information with the juvenile court judge,” says Coyne. “Participation in the juvenile court process can also present opportunities to let the court of appeals weigh in.”

Advokids also recruits pro bono attorneys throughout the state who can step in and represent a hotline caller when a case presents compelling facts and violations of the law. According to Coyne, “If we hear about an issue over and over again in a specific county, we have skilled pro bono attorneys who will fight to systematically change the root cause, not just Band-Aid one case at a time.”

Advokids is currently one of the named plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (LADCFS) for routinely failing to provide foster parents and relative caregivers with advance written notice of court hearings and opportunities to be heard.

Both Coyne and Sherwood believe that California has very child-centered, progressive laws, which allow anyone, such as a teacher, nurse, neighbor or other caregiver, to file court documents and be heard by a judge.

“The issue in California is not the laws, but the lack of awareness and also poor implementation in certain counties,” said Coyne.

Placement disruptions are by far the most common issue that Advokids addresses with clients.

“A baby is placed in a potentially permanent foster home. Six to 11 months later, the county finds a relative and moves the baby without any thoughtful transition,” explains Coyne. “It’s a traumatic event to move a small child to a caregiver with whom they have no relationship, and these decisions are being made by line social workers without any judicial review. That’s not how it should be.”

Sherwood adds: “Many social workers believe that the law requires them to always place a child with a relative. It’s untrue — like an urban myth. Relative placements should always be considered and reviewed with careful consideration of each individual child’s history, current placement and the child’s attachment to the current caregiver.”

Social workers’ large caseloads pose another significant issue, but Coyne and Sherwood believe this problem would be alleviated if laws were followed as intended.

“Federal and state laws have timelines, but no one enforces them,” Sherwood says. “In most instances, a case should not go beyond 12 months, but cases going 36 months is not unheard of. The longer it takes, the more detrimental it is to a child.”

Coyne and Sherwood point to several lawyer-related issues that leave children vulnerable to negative outcomes. On the one hand, says Coyne, “Some lawyers have too many cases, but others just do not do their job. Others still lack the appropriate training, and in many rural areas appropriate training isn’t even available.”

Other lawyers, she says, have an aversion to new information being introduced to the court from interested parties.

“We’re … blown away by the resistance to outside information coming into the court,” says Coyne. “Why would more information for decision making be bad? Judges can read the information and do what they want with it. Some of the contention is rooted in the fact that outsiders in the courtroom bring accountability, and the resistant lawyers and social workers don’t like being held accountable.”

Advokids offers 18 live legal training sessions for California lawyers and social workers each year, and both Coyne and Sherwood say they are willing to provide guidance to lawyers and advocates who wish to create similar organizations in other states based on the Advokids model.

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