ZFF is proud to be an early investor in East Bay Family Defenders (EBFD), founded in 2017 to provide high quality interdisciplinary representation to families navigating the child welfare system. In less than a year, EBFD, led by co-founders Eliza Patten and Zabrina Aleguire, replaced a for-profit panel of solo attorneys to take on roughly 1,200 families across Alameda County beginning September 2018.
EBFD’s innovative approach is based on New York City’s highly effective model of multidisciplinary family support, which includes social workers, parent advocates and attorneys. Evaluation of similar models in New York City (which have also been replicated in Santa Clara County through the Dependency Advocacy Center) found that children whose parents receive interdisciplinary representation achieve overall permanency, reunification, and guardianship more quickly than those who receive traditional representation. This approach recognizes that legal representation alone is not enough to address the myriad issues many families face when navigating the child welfare system, such as conditions of systemic socioeconomic inequity, challenges associated with poverty, housing insecurity, a lack of childcare, limited educational opportunities, and poor access to physical and mental health services. Thus, EBFD’s social workers and peer advocates 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. Peer advocates, with previous personal experience in the child welfare system, offer critical insight that empowers families, fosters hope, and gives parents practical tools they need to navigate the system.
EBFD works to disrupt historical trends of unnecessary family separations that negatively affect children by providing resources to help parents make good decisions for their children and get out of the challenging circumstances that destabilized the family in the first place. 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 their children.
Additionally, EBFD recognizes that some parents involved in the child welfare system face other legal challenges such as civil, criminal or immigration. Given that each court and legal system operates independently, EBFD’s interdisciplinary team works closely with the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, as well as other legal non-profit organizations, in efforts to provide coordinated care and representation for families. Their extensive, intentional and genuine collaboration was acknowledged in a recent award by California Senator Bob Wieckowski as Community Partner of the Year.
EBFD’s work also has been recognized nationally by the Family Justice Initiative (FJI), a program of the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law, whose goal is to improve legal representation for families. FJI selected EBFD, along with their counterpart East Bay Children’s Law Offices (which represents children in Alameda County’s dependency system), as a national demonstration site for modeling high quality legal representation for families.
ZFF deeply values its partnership with EBFD and looks forward to learning along with them about policies and practices to best support families in supporting their children.