National Reunification Day – I Threw a Party and Nobody Came

It is June 18, 2010, and as I write this National Reunification Day is only one day away. The mainstream press seems hardly to have noticed at all. Indeed, a search this morning with Google News search turned up only one small article in the Chicago Tribune mentioning the momentous event.

In case you’re wondering, a number of national organizations are working together to organize the first National Reunification Day on June 19, 2010. The goal of National Reunification Day, according to the American Bar Association “is to celebrate families and communities coming together and to raise awareness about the importance of family reunification to children in foster care.”

The ABA continues on to explain that: “Reunification with family is the preferred outcome for children removed from their homes and placed in foster care. Every year, hundreds of thousands of children are successfully reunified with their families. Reunification takes work, commitment, and investment of time and resources by parents, family members, social workers, attorneys, courts and the community. For most children in foster care, reunification with their family is their best option for a permanent and loving home.”

It is indeed gratifying to see the ABA, at long last, taking an interest in issues such as the dearth of meaningful legal representation for parents in court proceedings. In framing the primary issue, the ABA notably explains:

Too many children are removed from their parents and raised by the state. Too many of these children are aging out of the system without permanent family connections. Too many youth leave the foster care system to live on the streets, in prisons, or back with their families who never received the services needed to help them support these youth. Too many of these families are poor and represent minority populations.

Research shows improved legal representation for parents can reverse these negative trends. Better representation for parents can decrease unnecessary removals of children from their families, increase the amount and quality of services parents receive,increase the frequency and quality of visitation between children and their parents, foster the use of kinship placements, and decrease the amount of time until a child is safely returned to her parent.

Reversing these troubling trends may prove an arduous task. A study issued by the Public Advocate in New York City some years ago concluded that legal representation for indigent parents accused of neglect or abuse is at best inadequate, and “neither protects the rights of parents nor serves the best interests of children. It denies parents due process, profoundly disrupts family life, and leads to inappropriately lengthy and costly foster care stays for children.”

A recent study, Legal Representation for Parents in Child Welfare Proceedings: A performance-based analysis of Michigan practice, shows that little has changed since, as the report explains: “parents reported coming to court without prior contact from their attorney, being represented by substitute counsel who appear to have little knowledge of their case, and most important, who have no relationship with them.”

While emphasizing that “out-of-court work is essential to guaranteeing that the client is successful in reunifying with his/her children,” the report notes “data from this study show that most Michigan attorneys do little out-of-court advocacy.”

The report explains that some parents found their representation to be exceptional, but on the whole: “Parents paint a picture of attorneys not responding to telephone calls, communicating only outside of the court room, not being available when conflicts arose with their case plan or services, and generally, not being a reliable advocate.”

While some modest progress is always better than none at all, we still have a long way to go in terms of leveling the playing field between indigent parents and the agencies that ravage their families.

National Reunification Day may well be a step in the right direction. It’s a shame that the press didn’t think that it merited reporting.