How legal communities can use research to drive improvement: a response to Dorch, et. al.
Subject: Child welfare (Analysis)
Community service (Analysis)
Author: Fisher, Tim Jaasko
Pub Date: 12/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Health and Human Services Administration Publisher: Southern Public Administration Education Foundation, Inc. Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Government; Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Southern Public Administration Education Foundation, Inc. ISSN: 1079-3739
Issue: Date: Winter, 2010 Source Volume: 33 Source Issue: 3
Product: Product Code: 8340000 Community Services NAICS Code: 6242 Community Food and Housing, and Emergency and Other Relief Services
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 250033499
Full Text: Dorch, et al. propose the use of GIS analyses of Sta te 2-1-1community services data bases to measure parent education availability, proximity, access, capacity, and quality. The authors suggest that GIS analysis may supplement information available to caseworkers and judges to help them make decisions related to reasonable efforts. They further suggest that service availability, proximity, capacity, quality, and accessibility are factors that influence the probability of entry into or exit from the child welfare system that should be included in child welfare causal regression models. The following response focuses on how legal communities might partner with child welfare agencies to make use of this information.

To serve their clients well, judges and attorneys practicing in the child welfare legal system must learn to be intelligent consumers of social services. They must know which interventions are likely to be successful for a given family and understand whether these services are available. This information is important both to lawyers who wish to effectively advocate for their clients and for judicial officers who are tasked with ultimately deciding if "reasonable efforts" have been made.

The use of GIS analysis of 211 community services data bases offers a framework for considering service availability not previously considered. This technology can provide critical data to help inform judgments about service availability, distribution, and allocation. But as useful as the technology may be, it leaves questions relating to accessibility, appropriateness, and fit in a particular case to be made by a well informed judicial officer. However, most courts are given very little training on how to make such determinations. Case law on the issue in most states is vague at best. Table 1 of the article sets out a series of "facilitating" and "barrier" conditions which courts could adopt as a framework in determining whether reasonable efforts were made in a case. Developing opportunities for judges and lawyers to learn to assess services offered to families through this framework would be a useful way to frame conversations both in individual cases and on a broader system-wide level.

GIS analysis holds the promise of becoming a key piece of information to be shared with communities addressing the accessibility of quality parent education and other services. Judges and lawyers are permitted and in many cases encouraged, to engage in the improvement of the justice system. In many jurisdictions, judicial officers regularly attend multidisciplinary meetings with systems players to discuss important issues related to service array and availability, disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic groups, and general systems improvement. These collaborative meetings create a forum for dialogue about systemic child welfare issues outside the context of specific cases. They create important leadership opportunities for judicial officers to model learning behavior for attorneys and others in their jurisdiction. Ultimately, improving timely outcomes for children and families is best undertaken by thoughtful, well informed, collaborative efforts at system improvement. Issues relating to investment in community services, distribution of resources, and service array are political questions that cannot be resolved solely through data analysis. However, the research based approach suggested by Dorch, et. al. brings an important new approach to the conversation.


University of Washington School of Law, Court Improvement Training Academy
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