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Public-Private Partnership Keeps Allegheny County Adoptions Moving Ahead

The content below may contain dated material as it was prepared for the media in advance of Pittsburgh’s hosting of the G20 in March 2010.

In January of 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 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 a law firm for pro bono services and to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare StateWide Adoption Network for technical assistance. As a result of all parties’ willingness to think outside the box, the Adoption Legal Services Project (ALSP) was born. ALSP is a ‘first of its kind in the country’ public-private partnership between the state, a private law firm, the county child welfare agency, and the county Family Court.

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 LLP 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.