Legal Representation Training

On March 21st, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania expanded its efforts to improve the lives of abused and neglected children by launching a statewide training program specially designed for attorneys representing children and parents in dependency cases.

“A recent survey of Pennsylvania counties found that more than 90 percent of the attorneys representing children and parents in dependency cases do so on a part-time basis and few counties are requiring or offering those attorneys training fashioned to meet the needs of children and parents,” said Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Max Baer, a former administrative judge of family court in Allegheny County, who has been guiding these efforts on behalf of the Supreme Court.

“We intend to fill the training void and ensure that our children, those often least capable of articulating their own interests before the court, and their parents, are receiving high-quality legal representation,” Justice Baer said. The Court’s training not only covers relevant federal and state laws, court rules, and shelter, adjudication, disposition and permanency hearings, it also covers an array of non-legal topics such as Family Finding, Family Group Decision Making, Separation & Grief issues and communication skills when talking with children and interacting with parents.

Legal rep

Following approval of the State Roundtable in May of 2010, the training curriculum was developed by the Legal Representation Workgroup consisting of judges, attorneys, and children and youth services representatives from across Pennsylvania. The group’s chairperson, Butler County Common Pleas Court Judge Kelley Streib, said, “When children’s voices and their lives are placed in the hands of legal advocates, the dependency system must assure timely and thorough court hearings, and competent legal representation. We are confident the children and parent legal representation training will significantly help in our overall goal to ensure that every child grows up in a safe, nurturing and permanent family.”

Approximately 60 attorneys attended the first legal representation training held in Pennsylvania’s Judicial Center on March 21 and 22. One comment from an attendee summed up the enthusiasm and the receptiveness of the training, “This training should be required of all GALs, parent’s attorneys & CYS workers!! I am so glad that I attended it. It inspired this seasoned attorney.” The training program will be repeated at various locations throughout the state in 2011 and 2012. The training is part of the Supreme Court’s Children’s Roundtable Initiative, led by Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts’ Office of Children and Families in the Courts (OCFC) in close partnership with the state Department of Public Welfare’s Office of Children, Youth and Families.

“Providing the highest quality of legal representation to abused children & their families can be an overwhelming and stressful yet incredibly rewarding job. This historic dependency training session provides new and seasoned attorneys with cutting edge information and skill development opportunities aimed at enhancing that representation,” noted Sandy Moore, OCFC Administrator.

The OCFC, created in October 2006 by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court with the overriding goal to move abused and neglected child to safe, permanent homes without delay. State Department of Welfare statistics show that the Court’s efforts have resulted in a safe and consistent decline in the number of Pennsylvania children in foster care. In September 2006 there were approximately 20,450 children in Pennsylvania foster homes. By September 2010, that number had dropped below 15,000. The OCFC is funded with federal grants from the Court Improvement Project run by the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.