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May’s Foster Care Awareness Month Sees Major Legal Aid Reform
May’s Foster Care Awareness Month Sees Major Legal Aid Reform

May is Foster Care Awareness Month, and it’s fitting that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently announced a new regulation through the Administration of Children and Families (ACF) impacting children who are eligible for Title IV-E foster care, their parents, kinship caregivers, and Indian custodians and tribes. This new rule allows state and tribal child welfare agencies to use federal funds to provide independent legal representation to support families staying safely together.  

Before now, many Missouri parents were not guaranteed legal representation, and the legal representation they did receive was often lacking in quality. Without adequate legal representation, many Missouri parents faced significant barriers to reuniting with their children. According to HHS, research shows that providing parents and caregivers with independent legal representation in civil legal proceedings can prevent children from entering foster care and improve rates of reunification when children have been removed from the home. 

This new rule demonstrates an important culture shift toward prevention, not reaction, and helping families find the resources they need to provide a safe home before children are removed from the home. “The foster care system should always be a last resort, and at ACF, we are focused on prevention and getting families the supports they need to thrive,” ACF Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Jeff Hild said in a release. “This rule will ensure more families, young people and tribes have access to legal services that are often key to a family staying safely together.” 

By helping to provide legal representation, child welfare agencies could help families at risk of entering the foster care system secure stable housing and public benefits, or establish custody or guardianship to prevent unnecessary child removal. Child welfare agencies could use federal funds to help a parent get an order of protection against an abuser if doing so would help prevent the child from entering foster care. Agencies can also use the funding to help youth exiting foster care access legal documents to help them achieve independence and stability. This rule will go into effect on July 9, 2024. To read the full rule, visit the Federal Register’s website.