The SWAN Legal Services Initiative, LSI, program was created to address barriers within the legal process that delay permanency for a child in the child welfare system. LSI places paralegals in children and youth social service agencies to complete legal work, identify and resolve legal barriers and to bridge the gap between the legal community and child welfare system. The goal is always to reduce the time a child spends waiting for a permanent home.
A study of the SWAN LSI Program in 2005 found that over a three-year period participating counties:
- Reduced the time from goal change to adoption to termination of parental rights (TPR) by over five months (157 days);
- Reduced the elapsed time from TPR to finalization by over six months (182 days);
- Reduced the number of days children were in placement from goal change to finalization by 46%.
In 1996, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, now known as the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, DHS, through what was then the Statewide Adoption Network, established the Adoption Legal Services Project, ALSP, in Allegheny County to assist in providing representation in Orphans’ Court proceedings such as termination of parental rights and adoption cases. The next year, the initiative and a paralegal support position was established in Westmoreland County. The paralegal assisted county solicitors and children and youth workers to prepare and move permanency cases to a final resolution. Both programs were very successful, and so DHS’s Office of Children, Youth and Families, OCYF, offered funding to expand the Legal Services Initiative, LSI, to counties throughout the Commonwealth.
The Early Years of the Program (2001 – 2008)
LSI hired its first paralegals in 2002, with representation in 11 counties. The original counties were: Centre, Dauphin, Delaware, Juniata, Lehigh, Lycoming, Mifflin, Montgomery, Snyder Westmoreland and ALSP in Allegheny County.
Figure 1. LSI’s original counties
When the Federal Child and Family Services Review, CRSR, revealed a need for Pennsylvania to enhance efforts to find and engage fathers and other relatives in case planning, the SWAN LSI program responded in earnest by developing the SWAN LSI Diligent Search packet. This packet, released in 2005, has become a vital resource in supporting the SWAN Network with all searches in response to ongoing legislation and family search and engagement efforts.
Comments from Partners
Richard Saylor, Children’s Services Director for the Lycoming Clinton Joinder Board, Assistant Administrator Lycoming County Children and Youth, stated,
Our county had over 160 children in care, and 90 of those children had their parental rights terminated. The agency was only averaging 13 adoption finalizations yearly. The LSI program was a major contributor to changing this. Presently, our county has 26 children in care. Eight of those children’s parental rights are terminated, and the cases are under appeal in the Superior Court. The children are in permanent homes.
The LSI program assisted in fast tracking cases through the permanency system. Attorney language is used in all petitions rather than social work language. This frees caseworker time to spend on their cases. Diligent search is used to find absent parents, which saves time in the life of the case. [Paralegals] Research on case law assists when writing petitions. [They prepare] witnesses for court testimony, and preparing the witness list for court is a major time saver for staff and solicitor. The LSI program in our county does court scheduling, and families as well as all other parties have months advance knowledge of when their next court hearing is scheduled. LSI staff complete all court paperwork.
Our county added an additional paralegal as the original was assigned to only permanency cases (children in placement). We saw the advantage of having all court cases (in-home as well as permanency) assigned a paralegal, and now all cases that the agency determines need petitioned to court have a paralegal assigned at that time.
As the LSI program has expanded to almost all counties, the changes have occurred on two levels. At the county level, the counties can use the Warmline to get information from other counties. This was not available before. Research is also available across the county lines as the training provided to all paralegal staff comes back to the counties. The LSI program is involved at many state levels, and now our paralegal staff enter all information for the Pennsylvania court’s database (CPCMS). Also at the state level, the program is recognized for the contributions and the expertise it has. The program has been a major player and a major lead in the due process for safety plans at the state level.
All court paperwork including petitions is completed in a manner more familiar to the courts and all attorneys involved in the case. By the paralegals completing all court paperwork, court scheduling, preparing witnesses and so much more, it allows caseworkers to concentrate and spend additional time with their cases in a more preventative manner.
Due to the success in the original SWAN LSI counties, more counties contracted for LSI paralegals through Family Design Resources, Inc. The SWAN LSI paralegal role expanded to address other identified gaps in the county legal process while continuing to remedy the backlog of cases for the termination of parental rights and adoption finalization.
Nancy Johnson, Casework Manager, Lackawanna County Office of Youth & Family Services, shared,
I was interested in the LSI Program when it was first reported on at the SWAN Adoption Conference. I remember saying “I want one of those!” to assist with the delays within our agency for workers to complete termination petitions in a timely fashion once the goal was changed in dependency court. The application of the LSI program immediately began to improve upon this issue as the paralegal was responsible to meet with the workers/supervisors and prepare the petitions based on the information given. The LSI program has resolved so many barriers to permanency as our paralegals are an integral part of our team. They attend all agency meetings beginning with approval for a child’s placement and continuing until permanency is achieved or the child returns home (this includes all court hearings as well). Additional paralegals were added to our agency to expand upon the permanency activities [in] which they now participate. Paralegals are assigned to each group in the agency and involved in every case requiring court action of any kind. The program is continually evolving and changing as we improve our permanency practice and adjust our permanency activities. The biggest impact on Lackawanna County was the timeliness of our reaching permanency for our children and the best practice standards which are continually utilized by the LSI program/staff.
The “Expansion Years” (2009 – Present)
The SWAN LSI program continues to support SWAN LSI counties with the implementation and compliance of legislative mandates. In 2008, with enactment of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, county children and youth agencies needed additional support to expedite permanency. SWAN LSI’s first large expansion occurred in 2009 –2010 when the program expanded to 54 throughout Pennsylvania.
Today, a total of 202.5 SWAN LSI paralegals support all 67 Pennsylvania counties. Each paralegal has a unique job description developed specifically for the practice needs of each county, with many incorporating all stages of permanency (from intake to finalization).
SWAN LSI: A Look into the Future…
SWAN LSI paralegals are supported by the LSI Steering Committee, the knowledge and resources of DHS/OCYF and Diakon/FDR, the SWAN prime contractor. With its significant history, LSI has become an integral part of the county children and youth services team, as the counties move toward improving their practice.