Today, the laws and systems governing how cases involving a child’s well-being are handled vary from state to state. But that could all soon change with the establishment of a new center at the Law School, which officials say will overhaul the way child advocacy operates in this country.
The University’s National Quality Improvement Center on the Representation of Children in the Child Welfare System was created after the Law School received a $5 million grant from the U.S. Children’s Bureau of Health and Human Services.
The new center will focus on reconstructing, improving and standardizing child advocacy programs nationwide.
Don Duquette, a clinical professor of law at the University and director of the Law School’s Child Advocacy Clinic, will lead the new center, which will partner with the American Bar Association, National Association of Counsel for Children and KidsVoice — a child advocacy group.
Duquette and two other professors will work at the center and focus on the entire child welfare system, including all public and private services that protect children from abuse and neglect — like psychologists, counselors and Child Protective Services.
Duquette said the center will act as a pioneer in the field, which until now has not had widely accepted norms.
“For the field it’s quite exciting,” he said. “I am really excited about this project.”
The center will analyze the outcomes of each kind of case and assess the difference in standards across states, with the goal of finding what is most effective and best for children.
Currently, in some states, like Washington, a guardian who is not a lawyer must be appointed to each child under 12 years of age to work with the child’s attorney, Duquette said. However, this is not necessarily true for cases in Michigan and other states.
In each case, attorneys and guardians want the child protected, but it’s difficult to balance competing interests, Duquette said. Sometimes a child is taken from a home for too long and is hurt that way. Other times, the child is left in a home where abuse or neglect is still present.
“There is a huge division and not a general consensus,” Duquette said. “We are going to want to tease out what differences there are in one of these cases versus the others.”
The project’s end goal is to come to a conclusion about the most effective means of balancing these competing interests.
Duquette explained they hope to accomplish this by meeting three goals of the grant.
First, they plan to change the structure of the child advocacy system across the country. Second, the research team will look into the discipline and standardization of child advocacy law and, finally, categorize and publish the empirical data found in their clinical trials.
“This project will allow us to be creative in designing models of child advocacy that seem promising and then to run demonstration projects that will research what actions by the child’s advocate contribute to desired outcomes,” Duquette said. “This has never been done before and empirical research on the effectiveness of legal representation is very rare.”