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Center contributes to reduction of children in foster care in Detroit

DETROIT?More than 225 children have benefited from the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy's representation, resulting in them spending less time in foster care. In fact, not one child in a prevention case handled by the CFA has entered the foster care system.The center, which opened two years ago on July 6, 2009, provides legal representation and social work services to low-income families to prevent unnecessary placement of children into foster care. It is funded with grants from private foundations, individuals and Wayne County Family Services, and is affiliated with the University of Michigan Law School's Child Advocacy Law Clinic. "If we empower families by giving them the tools they need to take care of their children, then these kids can safely remain in their homes," said Vivek Sankaran, who directs the center and teaches at the U-M Law School. "If we weren't providing this work for them, nobody would be. There's nobody out there doing this type of work. There's no reason for kids who have loving families to be stuck in foster care. We can't let that happen."Sankaran estimates that more than 400,000 children are in foster care annually in the United States. The number exceeds 16,000 in the state of Michigan. The three-year pilot program serves families in Detroit, with an emphasis on those residing in the Osborn neighborhood on the city's east side. This area has one of Wayne County's highest rates of children being removed from their families. Once children enter the foster care system, they don't get the services they need, Sankaran says. It doesn't help matters when their lawyers are poorly trained, judges are overworked or case workers are inexperienced, he adds.The CFA trains law students to become good lawyers so they can effectively advocate for the children. "This work matters," Sankaran said. Sankaran compares the CFA's structure to a teaching hospital, where a clinical professor and highly trained staff pass on their knowledge to trainees while providing important service to clients. The CFA staff includes attorneys, a social worker and a parent advocate.While the lawyer can help with tasks such as restraining orders or powers of attorney, the social worker can assess parents' strengths and weaknesses and formulate a plan to deal with them. Meanwhile, the parent advocate?someone who has experienced the child welfare system firsthand?can use that perspective to help the client navigate the system.The center receives referrals from the Department of Human Services and the court, and assists families with two types of cases. The first are cases in which legal assistance can help a parent, guardian or extended family member provide a safe, stable home for a child whose family has been investigated and substantiated for possible abuse or neglect. The second are cases in which legal services to a potential permanent caregiver could help a child exit the foster care system completely.The program has become a model in other cities. Sankaran has spoken to groups in various states about replicating the CFA model in those jurisdictions.

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