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Adoption Legal Services Project Background

Bright IdeaIn 1996, 1,600 Allegheny County children in foster care were awaiting adoption—some for as long as five years—and the list was growing. Removed from their birth parents for a variety of reasons, most commonly for abuse, neglect, or parental addiction, some orphaned or abandoned when a parent was incarcerated, the children ranged from newborns to teenagers. Although the prospect of adoption for some had been limited because of age or special needs, these 1,600 had adoptive homes waiting—but the proceedings were backlogged by existing child welfare practices, a lack of collaboration, and an understaffed court and legal system.

The situation was untenable to the new Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Marc Cherna and Family Court Judge Max Baer. Even before the advent of the stringent timeframes of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, they were determined to work together to resolve the problem. They appealed to the law firm Reed Smith Shaw & McClay (now Reed Smith LLP) for pro bono services and to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) StateWide Adoption Network (SWAN) for technical assistance to ease the burden on the child welfare system, its caseworkers and its lawyers, and on its waiting children. As a result of all parties’ willingness to think outside the box, the Adoption Legal Services Project (ALSP) was born.

ALSP is a quintessential public-private partnership between the state, a private law firm, the county child welfare agency, and the county Family Court. SWAN agreed to pay the salaries of ALSP staff to provide technical support in the filing of adoption cases and all that is involved in the process. Reed Smith agreed to make office space and IT hardware and support available for the ALSP attorneys and paralegals and to encourage Reed Smith attorneys to volunteer their services by taking termination of parental rights (TPR) and adoption cases to court. The county child welfare system agreed to support ALSP staff in their work by providing case information in a timely manner. And the courts make mindful accommodations for the attorneys who donate their expertise to the program.

How it works

ALSP attorneys and paralegals, whose salaries are fully paid by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania DHS through SWAN, provide critical support that smoothes the way for Reed Smith LLP attorneys to volunteer their time to take adoption cases to court.  ALSP staff handle all the technical legal drafting and notice work so the volunteer lawyers can step into their role with ease.
Reed Smith attorneys who volunteer to participate in ALSP represent CYF in TPR and adoption proceeding in court. Reed Smith LLP attorneys are enthusiastic participants in ALSP. They find the “simple work with big rewards” so satisfying that now attorneys—rather than children—are on a waiting list. Many Reed Smith attorneys consider their work with the ALSP to be among their most valuable. They take pride and joy in the  part they play in helping hundreds of children emerge from lives of crushing abuse and neglect, and they celebrate with these children on the day the court finds their adoptive parents’ love to be a commitment for life. The firm has found that the project is an effective recruitment tool for attracting young attorneys who are eager to give back to the community through pro bono work. Reed Smith also houses ALSP, providing office space, IT hardware and support.

CYF caseworkers refer a portion of their TPR and adoption cases to ALSP and a portion to county attorneys in the CYF Adoption Legal Unit.  In either case, CYF supplies the attorneys and legal staff with pertinent case documents and insights so that permanency for foster children is prioritized at every stage.

The Allegheny County Family Court spearheaded the origins of ALSP by enlisting Reed Smith LLP, SWAN and CYF to participate. Further, the Family Court judges are well aware of the time constraints placed on volunteer Reed Smith attorneys and therefore hear their cases as expeditiously as possible.

The benefits

Nationally, the 119,000 children goaled for adoption wait an average 3.7 years for the process to be finalized. Although ALSP handles only about one-fourth of Allegheny County’s adoptions, the systemic changes it has sparked in the courts and the child welfare system, combined with the pro bono hours, have cleared the backlog of cases, and reduced the waiting time by approximately 30 percent from that of nine years ago. Expediting adoptions and elimination of the backlog of cases are documented evidence of the streamlining that has occurred within the Court, including the addition of three full-time attorneys to the County’s own legal team. These changes are the direct result of effective cooperation and public/private communication through the Adoption Legal Services Project.

In the second year of the project’s operation, Allegheny County finalized 515 adoptions—more than double the number for 1996 and nearly equal to the total completed in the previous four years. As of January 2009, over 250 attorneys, law clerks and paralegals at Reed Smith have participated in the project. ALSP has accepted termination and adoption cases for 1,216 children and has finalized 1,070 adoptions to date at an estimated dollar value of donated legal services of well over half a million dollars.

The Adoption Legal Services Program’s real value, however, lies not in its dollar value but in the stability and “permanency” it brings to hundreds of children, the joy it offers adoptive families, and the satisfaction it holds for the participating legal professionals.

Above and beyond Allegheny County adoptions

ALSP provides additional services beyond those directly related to adoptions in Allegheny County—ALSP has a staff attorney and a paralegal who specialize in contested TPRs in Allegheny County; they provide legal training, answer legal questions, and provide technical support for legal project expansions around the state; as well as gather data from, suggest system improvements to and conduct trainings for CYF.

The word’s getting around

This innovative collaboration of county and state government and a private law firm prompted an invitation for the principals to speak at the Mid-Atlantic Region Training Conference of the Child Welfare League of America as well as at forums throughout Pennsylvania, where the model is now replicated in part in 15 other counties. (None, however, has a comparable partnership with a single law firm or the extent of pro bono services.)

Coverage of ALSP in legal journals and in the national news media (CNN and ABC Primetime) has stimulated inquiries from across the country.

Reed Smith has been honored with the Urban League of Pittsburgh Corporate Leadership Award, the “Champions for Children” Award from the Homeless Children’s Education Fund, and the “Adoption Excellence” Award of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services for its role in ALSP.

The Adoption Legal Services Project was named among the Top 50 Government Innovations for 2006 by the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Allegheny County Press Release, March 23, 2006

Contact information

The Adoption Legal Services Project is housed at the law firm Reed Smith LLP. For more information, please contact:  Adoption Legal Services Project, 600 William Penn Way, 4th floor, Pittsburgh, PA  15219, tel. (412) 288-3262, fax (412) 288-3063, email lcolautti@reedsmith.com.