Kara R. Finck
At its core, family defense protects the legal relationship between a parent and their child, one of the most intimate, complicated, and nuanced relationships in practice and under the law. Family defenders represent parents and caregivers accused of neglect or abuse of their children in family and dependency courts. While the process of individual representation may appear straightforward, the ideals of family defense incorporate an explicit recognition of the social determinants that bring families into the child welfare system in the first place, including poverty, substance abuse, and untreated mental health issues. Although much of the attention paid to the child welfare and family court systems is focused on children and their placement in foster care, family defenders understand that any intervention by the child welfare agency and family court system has a profound impact on children and families. Often referred to as attorneys for parents, in literal contrast to attorneys for children, family defenders advocate beyond the direct representation of an individual client. Even the act of renaming lawyers for parents in abuse and neglect proceedings as “family defenders” as opposed to “parents’ attorneys” highlights the potential impact and scope of this work. Inherently, family defense practice incorporates legal advocacy that supports, strengthens, and stabilizes the client’s family, consequently promoting better outcomes for children.
This article posits that there are three critical components which should be included in any family defense practice model designed for advocating for parents and children in the child welfare and family court systems. A robust family defense is defined not only by its commitment to the zealous defense of clients, including all of the legal tools available in litigation, but also by its recognition of the unique context of family defense, which incorporates social services, community engagement, and anti-poverty lawyering into a comprehensive response for parents in family court.