This October we will explore the worker competencies associated with Partnering, which involve the expectation that workers apply a strengths perspective in an environmental context and work in respectful, interdisciplinary, and meaningful collaboration with families, communities, and other professionals to achieve shared goals. Katie Olson from the Institute to Transform Child Protection has graciously agreed to contribute to this conversation with her thoughts on partnering within the child protection legal system.
Reflections on Partnering in the Child Protection Legal System
Partnering. Collaboration. Teamwork. These are likely not the typical words that come to mind when thinking about a courtroom. The legal system is, by its very nature, adversarial. Terms like “opposing counsel” and the very naming of cases, The State vs. John Doe, for example, automatically pit one party against another. Often, the only form of perceived teamwork that occurs is when parties are trying to agree on a settlement. But child protection cases are different; or at least they should be.
Partnering is essential in child welfare proceedings, not just because it is required by law, but because it is what is best for children and their families. As opposed to other legal proceedings, everyone in a child welfare case has the same ultimate purpose, which is family preservation. This may look like reunification with biological parents or permanent kinship care, but either way, it is essential that children stay within their families and communities whenever possible.
Lawyers are tasked with advocating for their client’s wishes in court. These wishes may differ from the caseworker’s in terms of what should happen with the case, but that should not stop the parties from working together. Partnering with an attorney may seem like a daunting task to a caseworker, but keep in mind the unifying end goal. Many attorneys wish their clients could be more involved in the county’s decision-making processes regarding case planning, kinship, or placement because they know that collaboration empowers families to engage in the most relevant services, ultimately making reunification more likely. Informing a parent or child’s attorney the county will include the family is a good place to start.
No one knows better what could be helpful to a parent or child than that parent or child. For example, a caseworker looking in may believe a mother needs parenting classes because she inappropriately disciplines her child. By including that mother, the caseworker discovers mom works long hours and has little social support. Parenting classes would just add more to her plate, and what she would really benefit from is respite care. By talking to a child, a caseworker learns that the county-contracted therapist is not a good fit, because in her culture it is shameful to talk about certain things with a man. If lawyers trust their client’s caseworker, then they can focus on the legal representation and confidently leave the reasonable efforts to the county (which is how it should be!).
Every profession has its own set of competencies and boundaries. Lawyers should not be diagnosing trauma just as a non-lawyers should not be giving legal advice. A key aspect in partnering is accepting the limitations of your profession and self, knowing that everyone, not just families in child welfare, relies on external support systems. Caseworkers can rely on attorneys to explain the legal proceedings and ramifications of choices made to their clients, and lawyers can rely on caseworkers to ensure families are receiving the social services they need. Families’ lives are complex and intertwined in multiple systems, so it does not make sense that their supports should be siloed. By working together, professionals can pool their collective skills and networks to provide relevant, holistic support.
Partnering, collaboration, and teamwork should be words that come to mind when serving families involved in the child welfare system.
The Minnesota Child Welfare Practice Framework is a set of competencies that have been created to assist child welfare professionals in defining and demonstrating their knowledge, skills, and understanding across a number of different practice areas. Refer to page 7 of the Practice Framework to review all competencies related to Partnering, and consider ways to develop your own knowledge and skills.
Another great resource to explore is the Quality Parenting Initiative (QPI), a strategy of the Youth Law Center, which is an approach to strengthening foster care and refocusing on excellent parenting for all children in the child welfare system.