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Lawmaker proposes full-time legal representation for parents of children in foster care

Delaware Public Media

Delaware lawmakers are searching for ways to increase services available to parents whose children are in Department of Family Services custody.

Parents whose children are placed in foster care have the right to representation, but for parents who cannot afford an attorney, Delaware’s Family Court only offers contract attorneys who take child welfare cases on a part-time basis.

State Rep. Krista Griffith proposes an alternative approach: creating dedicated units in both the Office of Defense Services and the Delaware Community Legal Aid Society to represent parents. Griffith says specialized attorneys and case workers could help parents feel less overwhelmed by the custody process – and, in doing so, reduce the length of time children spend in the foster care system.

“Having this team means the parent can reach out and have better access to their representation, ask questions and hopefully be much more engaged in the process," she told the House Judiciary Committee in a hearing on the bill last week.

The units would also include two social workers — one assigned to New Castle County and another assigned to both Kent and Sussex County — to help connect parents to services that could improve their chances of regaining custody of their children, including housing.

Griffith proposes using state funding to add full-time parental representation units to Delaware’s Office of Defense Services and the Delaware Community Legal Aid Society.

But both agencies are struggling to fill existing vacancies, and the two would compete for attorneys when trying to build new units. Community Legal Aid Society Director Dan Atkins says ODS’ higher pay scale could create an imbalance.

“That’s going to be a challenge for CLASI and a built-in advantage for ODS," he told the Committee. "CLASI is going to be representing the primary parent, so we have that advantage – that could appeal to people who want to do this work.”

But House Judiciary Chair Rep. Sean Lynn worries the proposed size of the units — only four attorneys for Kent and Sussex Counties combined, for instance — would still fall far short of the need for their services.

The proposal advanced out of committee, but Lynn urged backers to increase their funding request.

Delaware's Division of Family Services has custody of nearly 600 children in foster care, with the majority — more than 370 — in New Castle County, compared to roughly 130 in Kent County and fewer than 100 in Sussex County.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.