Academic journal article Child Welfare

Improving Child Welfare Practice through Improvements in Attorney-Social Worker Relationships

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Improving Child Welfare Practice through Improvements in Attorney-Social Worker Relationships

Article excerpt

The child welfare system of this country has one mandate--to protect children and provide for their placement in safe, permanent homes. Regrettably, the current system is failing this mandate. The number of children placed in temporary foster care continues to rise [Anderson 1990], and the court process which orders and reviews that care has become more complex [Hardin 1990]. As a consequence, many children still grow up as wards of the system, never arriving at the safe, permanent homes the law requires.

To remedy this situation, cooperation and efficiency are needed. The child welfare system demands the involvement of professionals with varying skills and backgrounds. Social workers, lawyers, judges, mental and public health professionals, and educators must collaborate to best help the child and family. Collaborating, however, can be difficult. Adequate decisionmaking often entails the sharing of knowledge and information across professional boundaries and requires extraordinary patience, flexibility, and sacrifice. At times, it seems to demand more than is possible from overworked professionals of all sectors. This article will focus on one of the most challenging partnerships of the multidisciplinary team--that between social worker and attorney.

Although several problems can be spotted between these two professions along the continuum of service delivery, one of the most critical bottlenecks arises during the legal process required to free the child for adoptive placement. Indeed, termination of parental rights (TPR) is a serious legal proceeding calling for the highest degree of skill and cooperation between lawyers and social workers. Time is of the essence, and good legal and social casework is critical to preserving the well-being of the child. Moreover, for the sake of all the children placed out of home across the country, lawyers and social workers must seek to establish a better working relationship. It is essential that they apply themselves to the mutual resolution of the problems that plague the system.

From 1988 through 1990, we conducted a federally funded project to reduce delays in TPR proceedings [Johnson et al. 1993]. Seminars were held in nine Pacific Northwest counties for the various professionals who take part in the child welfare process. Importantly, the barriers these professionals identified in their systems were typical of those identified in projects across the country. Thus, the solutions that work in these counties may work elsewhere.


From time to time, commentators have sought to explain the problems that inhibit collaboration between attorneys and social workers. Some suggest that conflicts are based on psychological preconditions--for example, lawyers and social workers tend to operate out of different hemispheres of the brain [Lau 1983]. Others believe the breakdown lies in conflicting conceptions of the role each profession should play in the process [Benjamin 1981; Katz 1988]. These conflicts are aggravated by the structure and requirements of the court systems that handle the issues [Ordway 1985; Daily & Cook 1984].

Authors who have addressed these conflicts have suggested two practical steps to improvement: first, interdisciplinary training for both attorneys and social workers should be employed [Hardin 1983; Russell 1988; Weil 1982]; and second, the system should be modified to make use of professional similarities and differences to serve children and families [Ordway 1985; Harding 1990].

In 1988, the Northwest Resource Center for Children, Youth and Families designed a training project to take both of these steps. The goal of the project, named "Children Can't Wait," was to reduce delays in the process by providing multidisciplinary training and by making improvements to the system [Johnson et al. 1993]. To discuss this goal, attorneys and social workers came together for seminars held in each of nine counties in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. …

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