Winter 2015 - Legal Representation of ChildrenLawyers representing children, parents and the state in child protection cases function in an adversarial, fault-based legal process that is much criticized. Well-meaning reforms of the legal process governing coercive intervention in family life have failed to improve the lives of children ensnared in the system. The child welfare system is overwhelmed and ineffective, harming a large number of the children it is supposed to protect while missing others that need assistance. Critics have argued that advocates for children and families need to move beyond tinkering with the machinery of the child welfare system and instead consider how to build a different machine.The relationship between social service agencies and the court that characterizes the child welfare system has few parallels in American jurisprudence. The working parts of the system involve a complex interface among law enforcement, medicine and public and private social service agencies -- all controlled by a court charged with adjudicating the liberty interests of the children and parents involved. These challenges are faced in the context of underlying problems of child poverty, impoverished communities, social isolation, substance abuse and parental stress.To the great detriment of parents and children, in the current system the state waits for a crisis in a family and then intervenes in a heavy-handed fashion. The intervention is often too late. Too many children enter foster care and they stay too long with serious consequences to the child. Many have advocated for a less coercive response to potential child maltreatment with less reliance on the courts for routine management of cases.In the Winter 2015 semester the Legal Representation of Children seminar will do a broad review of the child welfare system. Can a public health approach prevent child abuse and neglect or improve our response? Can "reasonable efforts" requirements be tightened to assure that only a child who really needs it is removed? Are the definitions of "abuse" and "neglect" overly broad? Just right? Does the law draw a clear line between poverty and neglect? What core legal reforms are necessary to reshape the system to better respond to the needs of children and families?
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