In Alameda County, a new nonprofit organization is challenging traditional approaches to child welfare in the United States. Co-founded in 2017 by Eliza Patten and Zabrina Aleguire, East Bay Family Defenders (EBFD) provides high quality interdisciplinary representation to families navigating the child welfare system.

For years, low-income families involved with Alameda County’s Juvenile Dependency Court encountered inadequate court-appointed legal representation that adversely affected children who were kept in foster care even when families were able to bring their child home. The poor level of representation was the consequence of relying on a for-profit panel of solo practitioners ill equipped to address the complex issues underlying involvement with the child welfare system.

For both Patten and Aleguire, disrupting this trend had been a dream for a long time. Each had spent more than two decades in family defense law representing parents and children and studied under renowned child welfare expert, Martin Guggenheim, one of the architects of New York City’s model of multidisciplinary family support. Both lived a longstanding commitment to serving low-income communities and bringing families together. When the opportunity arose to establish a program to reform Alameda County’s broken system and introduce a new model of representation, Patten and Aleguire got straight to work.

In less than a year, EBFD has replaced the previous system and taken on roughly 2,000 cases across Alameda County. A disproportionate number of clients are low-income women of color. Burdened by conditions of systemic socioeconomic inequity, these clients are often plagued by challenges associated with poverty, housing insecurity, a lack of childcare, educational opportunities, and poor access to physical and mental health services.

“Historically, the child welfare system was intended to operate as a rehabilitative court. Instead, in the experience of many families, it has operated in the way that the rest of our justice system does, which is very prosecutorial and not forgiving or compassionate. We believe that for this work to be done well meaning that families are actually served, children are able to avoid foster care placement, and parents are able to get on a better track underlying challenges need to be addressed. That is why we’re here.”

– Zabrina Aleguire, Co-founder, East Bay Family Defenders

With a deep commitment to equity and awareness of the challenges their clients face, EBFD approaches its work informed by the Interdisciplinary Family Defense Model, which recognizes that legal representation alone is not enough to address the myriad of issues many families face when navigating the child welfare system. EBFD’s social workers provide parents with critical out-of-court advocacy, serving as an important voice for families during meetings with the child welfare agency, and connecting parents with services essential to addressing family challenges, including employment training, substance use treatment, and mental health counseling. The final piece of EBFD’s model incorporates peer support and mentorship, where clients are connected with parent advocates. These peer advocates, with previous personal experience in the child welfare system, offer critical insight that empowers families, provides hope, and gives them the practical tools they need to navigate the system.

Today, there are nearly 400,000 children in the foster care system nationwide and over 1,000 children in foster care in Alameda County. EBFD is part of a growing national social justice movement to reduce these numbers. The Family Justice Initiative (FJI), a program of the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law, helps lead this movement. FJI is a collaboration of organizations involved in improving legal representation for families, including the Center for Family Representation in New York City and the Dependency Advocacy Center (DAC) in San Jose. FJI selected EBFD, along with East Bay Children’s Law Offices, as a national Demonstration Site for modeling high quality legal representation for families.

FJI’s work is based on research showing that high quality legal representation for parents and children in the child welfare system leads to improved outcomes for children, including prevention of foster care placement, faster and more durable reunification of families, as well as quicker achievement of alternative permanent family-based arrangements for children who cannot reunify with parents.

“Children placed in foster care have a higher likelihood of criminal justice system involvement, poor educational outcomes, homelessness, and mental health issues,” said Aleguire. “The impact the system has on their quality of life and the opportunities they are afforded is often life-long and detrimental, typically extending beyond children to affect families and communities,” added Patten.

Misinformation around the primary causes of parent involvement in the child welfare system (which are most often due to poverty-based conditions of neglect rather than abuse), and failures in approaching cases restoratively, fuels a narrative that casts parents in a negative light. This narrative has historically driven decision-making within the system leading to unnecessary family separations and trauma for parents and children. For EBFD, investing in children means investing in their parents. In addition to providing families with individual support, EBFD shifts the policy narrative to prioritizing providing families with the resources they need to make the right decisions for their children.

EBFD’s approach offers a holistic alternative that not only acknowledges the underlying factors that have led many families to become involved with the child welfare system, but also works to disrupt historical trends of unnecessary family separations that negatively affect children. EBFD works to center families and preserve the family unit by ensuring that the parent voice is at decision-making tables and is recognized as an invaluable part of the solution to caring for our children.

Under a three-year contract with the Judicial Council of California (JCC), EBFD opened its doors to clients in September 2018. As a new nonprofit, EBFD faced significant challenges in obtaining working capital required by the JCC contract to cover projected expenses and build its interdisciplinary model. That’s when Patten and Aleguire approached Community Vision for support, which responded with a three-year $185,000 working capital loan supported by a State of California IBank loan guarantee obtained through Oakland-based Nor-Cal FDC.

“Our commitment to racial and economic equity compelled us to make this loan despite the challenges of lending to a new nonprofit with no assets or experience. EBFD’s holistic approach to family defense addresses the systemic bias against poor families, often people of color, that’s been embedded in our juvenile justice system for generations.”

– Dan McDonald, Deputy Director of Lending, Community Vision

The loan, though crucial to EBFD’s stability and success, is small compared to significant assistance from EBFD’s fiscal sponsor DAC who provided invaluable assistance and mentorship, and grant support from the vanLöbenSels RembeRock Foundation, Zellerbach Family Foundation, Walter S. Johnson Foundation, Bigglesworth Family Fund, Casey Family Programs, the Judicial Council of California, and the Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit Program. The support of these organizations is what brought EBFD into being and positioned them for a loan in the first place.

“We were just so grateful that Community Vision was willing to work with us in that early stage,” said Patten. “We know it took exceptions, but without their help we would not have been able to operate.”

In the future, in addition to building a more robust program, Patten and Aleguire hope that EBFD’s efforts will shed new light on this issue and create a more just and effective child welfare system.