Serving the Best Interests of Infants and Toddlers in the Juvenile Court Dependency System: A Multidisciplinary Team Approach.

This article looks at one legal organization’s attempt to apply best practices in representing infants and toddlers, children ages zero to three, in the dependency proceedings by employing a multidisciplinary team approach for the legal advocacy of these children.

All names and identifying facts have been changed to preserve confidentiality.

In the last decade, there has been greater focus on the developmental and emotional needs of the infants and toddlers in the child welfare system and Juvenile court dependency proceedings (A Call To Action On Behalf Of A Maltreated Infants and Toddlers, 2011; Lederman, Osofsky & Katz, 2004; Wulczyn, Hislop & Harden, 2002).  There is now a better understanding of the long term affects of abuse and neglect on infants and toddlers and their experiences in the child welfare system (Osofsky & Leiberman, 2011; Lederman & Osofsky, 2008; Lederman & Osofsky, 2004; Lederman, Clyman, Harden & Little, 2002;).  For a large portion of the history of foster care and dependency proceedings, children were not given a voice at all. In fact, court cases which were specifically about maltreatment of children and often resulted in the disruption of children’s lives through placement in foster care and the intrusion of Child Protective Services (CPS) in the lives of their families, rarely had legal professionals that showed reflective capacity about the individual children, their needs and how to ensure that anything other than their basic needs were met; it was simply outside of their scope of practice.  The older children could, when asked, speak about their needs.  The non-verbal population could not and few professionals were asking how they might be heard.

A little over a decade ago however, counties across California found it prudent to appoint attorneys for all minors to represent their best interest in Juvenile dependency legal proceedings (Adoptions and Safe Families Act, 1997).  Although this was a positive step, the attorneys still faced monumental barriers in their representation of infants and toddlers.  The central obstacle for attorneys was the lack of relevant training in understanding and expressing the children’s needs, particularly with non-verbal children.  Because their legal training was not designed to assess and understand the unique and complex needs of infants and toddlers, attorneys often found that they had to rely almost exclusively on reports of outside professional involved in the cases.  In addition, with enormous legal case loads, it was easier to defer cases involving infants and toddlers and concentrate on teenagers who were engaging in risk taking behaviors.   Attorneys strived for application of the best legal standard in the case, but too often the actual voice of the non-verbal child lost, as the attorneys were not trained to hear them.

After attorneys were appointed regularly on a dependency case, an interesting trend began to appear.  Although attorneys were appointed to represent the best interests of the child, their recommendations and advocacy for what they believed to be in the child’s best interest were being discounted or dismissed by the court.  The judicial officers would follow the recommendations of the CPS social worker, particularly in cases where there was a question of the emotional well being of or impact on the child, despite the recommendations of the child’s own attorney.  Simply put, the CPS social worker could offer his/her specialized training of the assessment of the needs of children, in support of the recommendations to the court, whereas the minor’s attorney could not.  The attorneys recognized the need to better situate themselves, not only to be better heard by the court when presenting the child’s voice, but also to provide the best service and practice to the vulnerable children that they represented.

The attorneys of East Bay Children’s Law Offices (EBCLO), a non-profit organization in California’s Bay Area are appointed by the Alameda County Juvenile Court to represent children involved in the dependency proceedings.  EBLCO employs a multidisciplinary approach in its representation of children to best serve in their legal advocacy through the use of attorneys and social workers.  The team model addresses not only legal aspects of the case through the use of lawyers, but also the physical, developmental, psychological and educational needs assessed and addressed by social workers on the child’s team.  Together, the team strives for a holistic approach to advocating for children both within the dependency system and out.

Using this holistic approach, the social workers provide attorneys with a comprehensive psycho-social assessment of the needs of infant and toddler clients who are not able to verbally express their needs.  The social workers also work with the attorneys to create the best and most appropriate plan to advocate for the needs of our small clients and provide them a voice in the dependency proceedings. Although some would argue that our social workers are duplicating the services of the CPS social workers, the primary difference is that the CPS social workers provide an overall assessment of a number of factors and interests in the cases, including the needs and rights of the parents.  Non-verbal children’s voices can be easily overridden and lost when looking at the needs of multiple individuals in a case, particularly when there are competing or conflicting interests in the case.  The multidisciplinary team approach of social workers and attorneys attempts to ensure that the voice of the non-verbal child is always heard and advocated for in the dependency proceedings.  From the eyes of EBCLO, the developmental, social and emotional needs of the child are paramount.


In the case of Makayla, a petite fourteen month old with pensive eyes, her attorney contacted me, the Clinical Director of East Bay Children’s Law Offices, for a consultation.  The CPS social worker was preparing to move her out of state to a relative, although she had spent the majority of her fourteen months in the care of foster parents who wanted to provide her permanency through adoption.  The attorney was worried that this was not in the best interests of Makayla, but as relatives had a preference in regards to placement, he felt unsure how he could address the move.  I began an independent investigation of the case, including meeting with Makayla multiple times, talking with the foster parents, speaking with the relative, observing the relative with Makayla and doing a full examination of Makayla’s experiences and history.

After completing my investigation, I shared my conclusions with the attorney.  Although Makayla demonstrated a secure attachment to her foster parents, she was an anxious and shy toddler.  During her visits with the relative, Makayla was shut down and the relative did little to engage her, despite a multitude of visits and accommodations made to help Makayla feel more comfortable during the visits.  Further, given the out of state home of the relative, there was little hope for a lengthy and thoughtful transition for Makayla.  Weighing these difficulties, the expected trauma and grief for Makayla, against the important significance of being placed with biological family lead me to a clear conclusion. Makayla needed to experience permanency with her foster parents and they would need to be responsible to establish and maintain a relationship with Makayla’s biological family for her benefit as she aged.  The attorney and I were both in agreement that the legal basis for moving Makayla did not outweigh the disruption in attachment and impact on her emotional well being.

The attorney illustrated for the court that, despite the importance of placement with biological family, it would not be in Makayla’s best interest to have her change placements.  He used my assessment of the case, specifically details about Makayla and her experiences and translated it into a legal argument to inform the court about the best interests of Makayla. Instead of focusing on generalized statements about the emotional well being of toddlers, he was able to illustrate specifically this move would not serve Makayla’s best interests.   The court heard and understood the attorney’s argument on behalf of Makayla and ordered that she stay in her current home and for CPS to facilitate a relationship between the foster family and Makayla’s biological family.


Within EBCLO, it is not just the substantial life-altering decisions that are considered by the multidisciplinary team, but also the day to day decisions that when combined ultimately can have a huge impact on a child’s life trajectory and his/her development.  This impact is often seen around the issues of transitions and visitation.

Khalil had lived with his mother for most of his seven months, prior to being removed from her home.  After being placed with a relative, Khalil began to show signs of attachment difficulties, such as resisting affection and attention from his caregiver and when injuring himself, he failed to seek out an adult to help and comfort him.  He also was experiencing possible sensory integration issues, in the form of sensitivity to loud sounds and bright lights.  After visiting with him and talking at length with his relative, I shared my concerns about his needs with his attorney.  During our consultation, his attorney explained that the parents wanted two visits per week, although Khalil was placed over an hour away.  Based on my investigation, the attorney argued in court that Khalil needed both early childhood mental health services to help him build a secure attachment to his new caregiver and services to address his sensory integration issues.  Further, in regards to the visits, the attorney requested that the court mandate that the parents be given train tickets as they would need to travel to Khalil for the visits.  This would save him the trauma of the long car trip with an unknown transportation worker and the constant upheaval to his schedule.  As both the attorney and I had successfully established a good rapport with the relative, she, at our request, agreed to have the parents visits with Khalil in her home, so she could help support Khalil during the visits.  The court was in agreement with Khalil’s attorney’s recommendations.


The lives of infants and toddlers are inextricably altered by abuse and neglect and involvement in the dependency system (Osofsky & Lieberman, 2011; Lederman & Osofsky, 2004; Clyman, Harden & Little, 2002; Wulczyn, Hislop & Harden, 2002). The examples mentioned are just two of many, in which the voices of infants and toddlers were heard in the dependency proceedings due to the multidisciplinary team approach employed by EBCLO.  Without the multidisciplinary approach, history has shown that attorneys do not have the specialized training to always hear the voices of infants and toddlers and even when they do, the court was more inclined to follow the recommendations of the CPS social worker involved in the case.  The independent investigation done by the EBCLO social worker, the collaboration between the attorney and the social worker and the attorney’s artful translation of the investigation into legal language, allows the Juvenile court to clearly see and understand the best interests for each of the smallest clients that comes before it.  This best practice approach allows for the voices to be heard by all and hopefully and ultimately leads to the best outcome for these vulnerable children.

Sarah Lusardi

Sarah Lusardi
Clinical Director
East Bay Children’s Law Offices



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