The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Multidisciplinary Services for Court-Involved Youth

Friday, January 17, 2014: 9:00 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 002B River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Lisa Langenderfer, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Kimberly A. Bender, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Amanda Donnelly, JD, Staff Attorney, State of Colorado, Denver, CO
Jocelyn Durkay, BA, MSW Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Christopher Dennis, BA, MSW Student, University of Denver, Spokane, WA
Angie Appelgate, BA, MSW Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Matthew Pfeifer, BA, MSW Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Background: Colorado recently implemented a novel model of representation for court-involved youth, involving the creation of multidisciplinary law offices (MDLOs) in which Guardian ad Litem (GAL) attorneys work in collaboration with staff social workers to represent the best interests of youth in dependency and neglect cases. The MDLO team is an innovative model nationwide, but has received little attention empirically. While the multidisciplinary model could benefit youth by integrating legal and social work expertise, preliminary evidence suggests this multidisciplinary collaboration involves inherent challenges, and outcomes have not been well assessed. The current study (1) examined whether MDLOs were associated with more time spent on cases, better representation in court, and improved safety/permanency outcomes compared to traditional attorney-only representation and (2) investigated the challenges faced by MDLOs.

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.