Multidisciplinary Services for Court-Involved Youth
Methods: This mixed methods study included five approaches: (1) Secondary analysis of the AnyCase administrative database tracking billing activities for all GALs in Colorado allowed a comparison of a random sample of multidisciplinary cases (n=300) to a random sample of traditional attorney-only cases (n=300) in regards to case activity; (2) Court observation of multidisciplinary (n=90) and traditional attorney-only (n=90) case hearings was used to compare quality of representation in court (e.g., brought youth to court, stated youth’s opinions and best interests) across the two models; (3) Secondary analysis of Family Justice Information System data collected by the Supreme Court Administrator’s office which compared finalized multidisciplinary (n=47) and traditional cases (n=31) in regards to whether a permanent placement was established; (4) Qualitative individual interviews (n=16) with a randomly selected sample of MDLO staff (attorneys, social workers, and administrative staff) assessed the challenges and strategic solutions of the multidisciplinary model; and (5) Three focus groups (n=36) with Department of Human Services county caseworkers assessed collaborating professionals’ perceptions of MDLOs.
Results: GALs from MDLOs spent significantly more time on cases than traditional GALs (t(598)=-6.24, p<.001), including greater time with their youth clients. Despite greater time per case, court observations revealed no significant differences in court representation by multidisciplinary and traditional GALs. Additionally, youth represented by MDLOs experienced more placement changes compared to those represented by traditional GALs (t(569)=-2.30, p<.05), and there was no difference in establishment of permanent placements (x2(1)=.03, p>.05). Qualitative interviews suggested power differentials between attorneys and social workers created challenges in collaboration. Role confusion, overlapping responsibilities, and lack of disciplinary-specific supervision were also perceived as barriers to multidisciplinary practice. Focus group results indicated the need for better clarifying MDLO social workers’ roles and differentiating them from department caseworkers’ to avoid strained collaboration.
Conclusions: Although not without its challenges, the MDLO approach to representing court-involved youth appears promising in increasing youth contact and accessibility to their GALs. However, outcomes do not provide a clear indication of effectiveness. As this model expands in the state of Colorado and nationally, greater efforts are needed to more rigorously evaluate the long-term effects, including collecting measures of youth well-being (emotional, physical, educational) as these outcomes may be most affected by GALs’ collaboration with team social workers.