Parents’ understanding of the child welfare system

Parents’ understanding of the child welfare system

Although parent’s understanding of the juvenile dependency system is crucial to the case outcome, the current study shows that their understanding is limited and not appropriately assessed, which may lead to uninformed decisions that bear high costs to the families. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2018, Vol. 24, No. 4, 459–473

Parents’ Understanding of the Juvenile Dependency System


Kyndra C. Cleveland, Vanderbilt University
Jodi A. Quas, University of California–Irvine


A great deal of attention has been devoted to documenting the legal experiences and knowledge of children involved in the juvenile dependency system (i.e., child protection system). Such insight is critical to inform policies that profoundly affect children and families. However, the experiences and knowledge of another population involved in the dependency system are also critically important—namely those of the children’s parents. Parents’ understanding has enormous potential to affect their behaviors, ongoing decisions in the case, and the eventual case outcome. In the current study, 105 parents involved in ongoing juvenile dependency cases were interviewed about their general and case-specific dependency understanding, including their understanding of commonly used dependency terms, the role of dependency professionals, and the purpose of key hearings. Parents, on average, evidenced a limited or partial general understanding of the system. More than half of the sample demonstrated a limited understanding of the judge’s specific decisions in their hearings, with 12% demonstrating no knowledge of the decisions rendered. Parents at particular risk for low understanding included fathers, those who were new to the system, those with no prior dependency contact as children, and those from low educational and minority backgrounds. Practical implications and recommendations for family dependency policy, including the need for a standard assessment of parent understanding and programs to improve knowledge, are discussed.


demographic, juvenile dependency, knowledge, parent, understanding

Summary of the Research

“When children experience neglect, abuse, or other forms of maltreatment at the hands of their parents, the entire family can become involved with social services, and eventually, the juvenile dependency system. This system has a primary goal of ensuring children’s safety and well-being, while also providing services to parents to help them improve upon the challenges that led to the initial social service and legal intervention. For children and parents, being a part of the juvenile dependency process is lifechanging: The decisions rendered throughout the case determine the amount of contact parents and children have with one another; what rehabilitative services are delivered, to whom, and for how long; and the permanent legal guardianship arrangement for children that will last into adulthood. […] We use the formal term, juvenile dependency system, to refer to the legal system that oversees cases of child abuse and neglect. Other related terms may include child welfare, child protection, or foster care.” (p. 459)

“Despite the gravity of the decisions made in juvenile dependency cases and the effects of those decisions for the entire family, virtually nothing is known about the extent to which all relevant participants in a case understand what is happening. […] Studying children’s understanding and experiences is critical. However, parents are also directly and personally involved, and their understanding is perhaps equally critical, at least for the progression and eventual outcome of the case and, as a consequence, for the children’s and family’s future.” (p. 459)

“From a practical and theoretical perspective, insight into parents’ understanding of the dependency system is relevant to a number of ongoing debates. These include debates concerning parental rights, family autonomy, and whether formal standards need to be established to ensure adequate participation in what is often viewed as a less formal system. Theoretical debates exist as well, concerning how court experiences shape perceptions of legal legitimacy and fairness, and the psychological health and well-being of participants in legal cases. In light of these debates, as well as the undeniable gravity of the decisions rendered in dependency cases, we conducted a much-needed investigation of parents’ legal understanding of the dependency system. We specifically examined how well parents involved in ongoing juvenile dependency cases understand the dependency court process generally (i.e., their ability to define common dependency terms and answer questions about a hypothetical dependency case) and their case specifically (i.e., comprehension of the judge’s decision in a hearing that they just attended). We also examined whether general and case-specific understanding were related, and whether demographic and individual-level factors (e.g., race, education, income) predicted legal understanding.” (pp. 459–460)

“Recent national data indicate that there are 4.1 million reports of child maltreatment in the U.S. annually. Of these, 42% are screened out because of insufficient evidence, leaving child protective services (CPS) with 2.3 million reports to investigate further. […] Upon investigation of these allegations, some families may receive in-home services from CPS. However, if it is determined that the maltreatment is severe or the child appears to be at risk of imminent harm, CPS will submit a petition to refer the child to the juvenile dependency system. Once a dependency case is filed, the child may be removed from home and placed in a temporary out-of-home placement. Parents may secure their own legal representation, or if they cannot afford to do so, the court may assign them an attorney. If both parents are involved, each typically has individual representation. Another attorney is assigned to the child(ren). Each attorney is required to represent the interests of their assigned party.” (p. 460)

“Although juvenile dependency cases have a common underlying structure, there are also highly variable components, players, and procedures. In addition, court hearings and documents are imbued with legal jargon (e.g., de facto, concurrent planning) that can be difficult to comprehend, especially among individuals with low educational attainment, like many dependency-involved parents. All of this, combined with the complexity of the system and the multiple variations in the case, likely makes the dependency court process particularly difficult to understand for the population involved. If parents do not understand what is happening, their responsibilities, the roles of the professionals with whom they interact, the purpose of hearings, and the court orders, it is highly unlikely that parents will be able to comply with court mandates, putting reunification in jeopardy.” (p. 461)

“Current legislation regarding dependency cases is largely guided by the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, which aims to improve the timeliness of child permanency (i.e., safe and stable homes for children). […] relevance to the current study, parents are entitled to constitutionally afforded due process rights and rights related to their legal relationships with their children. […] Central to these rights is the need to understand the legal process, its potential consequences, and what is occurring in each hearing. In light of the central need for legal understanding when navigating a dependency case, it is perhaps surprising that there is no “legal right” to a basic understanding of the dependency system and one’s case. In criminal and some civil cases, competency standards exist to safeguard defendants who may otherwise have a poor understanding of the legal system and to facilitate defendants’ effective participation in their case. […] No such standards or expectations exist for parents in dependency cases, and in fact, until the present research, the level of these legal participants’ understanding generally and of their case specifically has not been the subject of empirical investigation. […] the extent to which parents’ attorneys provide them with necessary and requested information is unknown. And, even if attorneys provide this information, it is unknown whether parents are able to digest it and apply it to their cases. The current study served as an important initial investigation of what parents actually know about the system.” (p. 461)

“Insight into dependent parents’ legal understanding can also inform theoretical models of justice. […] If parents understand the dependency system, they may more readily perceive the system as fair or transparent and therefore legitimate. Such parents may then be more likely to comply with court orders, be present at court hearings, reunify with their children, and, of importance, not recidivate. Investigating parents’ understanding is a critical starting point for further tests of procedural justice concepts in the context of juvenile dependency court.” (p. 461)

“Finally, legal understanding is relevant to therapeutic jurisprudence, which is concerned with how the law relates to one’s psychological well-being and the ways in which the law can act as a therapeutic agent. […] Identifying gaps in parents’ understanding and then finding ways to fill those gaps may serve to improve parents’ psychological well-being during the case and ability to follow court mandates. […] If understanding affects compliance and reunification outcomes as well-established justice models would suggest, improving parents’ knowledge is in the best interest of all parties involved. Likewise, insight into dependent parents’ understanding may offer important ideas about new directions for procedural justice and therapeutic jurisprudence research, both of which have yet to be studied in this important population.” (pp. 461–462)

“Although prior research has not systematically examined legal understanding in dependency-involved parents, such understanding has been investigated in multiple other samples that share common characteristics with parents in the dependency system. […] Of particular relevance to the present research are studies of legal understanding of the juvenile justice system. […] Findings across these lines of work are fairly consistent in revealing significant gaps in general knowledge, with understanding at times being entirely nonexistent or even incorrect. […] Similar deficits exist in youth’s knowledge of their own case, which is perhaps not surprising given relations between children’s general and case-specific legal knowledge. […] Very few studies exist concerning parents’ legal knowledge, and those that do concern parents’ understanding of their child’s rights as a defendant and their rights as the child’s parent. Results reveal naïve and sometimes incorrect perceptions, among community samples and parents with a child in the delinquency system. […] Together, these lines of work reveal fairly low levels of knowledge among dependent and delinquent youth and parents of delinquent youth.” (p. 462)

“In the current study, parents involved in ongoing juvenile dependency cases in Florida were interviewed about their general and case-specific legal understanding. To assess general knowledge, parents were asked to define commonly used dependency terms and were asked questions about a hypothetical vignette involving a dependency case. To assess case-specific understanding, parents were asked about recent decisions and hearings. Finally, parents provided information about their background, family, and prior legal experiences. Hypotheses were as follows: (a) A majority of parents would lack comprehensive general and case-specific understanding, similar to that observed in other high-risk populations of children, adolescents, and adults; (b) A positive relation would emerge between general and case-specific understanding; (c) Regarding demographic and background characteristics, being from a lower SES background (i.e., lower income and education) would predict less understanding. Tentatively, with income and education controlled, minority parents would evidence less accurate knowledge than majority-race parents. Finally, although length of time in the system is not consistently related to legal understanding in other populations , given nuances in the dependency process, and the number of hearings parents are required to attend, parents whose cases had been going on longer would evidence better legal understanding, in general and about their own case.” (p. 463)

Participants: 105 parents involved in ongoing juvenile dependency cases; in each case either mother or father participated – in two cases both parents participated individually; 79% were mothers; ages 19–62 (M = 31.87); had between one and nine children (M = 3, SD = 1.64); 61% African American, 34.3% White, 3.8% Hispanic/Latino, 1% multiethnic or other.

“Parents’ reported level of education varied as follows: some high school (36.3%), high school diploma (24.5%), some college (32.4%), 2-year degree (2.9%), and 4-year degree (3.9%). No parent reported postgraduate training. For 76.5% of the parents, annual household income was less than $25,000. The remaining parents reported $25,000 –34,999 (15.7%), $35,000-$49,999 (5.9%), and $50,000-$74,000 (2.0%). […] Approximately one quarter of the parents had been involved with the dependency system as a child or teenager.” (p. 464)

“The current study was the first of its kind to systematically examine legal understanding in parents involved in ongoing juvenile dependency cases. […] Our first prediction, namely that knowledge would be limited, was confirmed. Parents demonstrated, on average, a limited or partial general understanding of the system (e.g., they could only marginally define such terms as guardian, petition, or case plan). Moreover, when understanding of hearing decisions was examined, parents fared only slightly better. […] As confirmation of our second hypothesis, the more parents understood generally, the more they understood about the decision in their specific hearing. The deficits in knowledge we found among parents in the current study in response to our questions are similar to deficits observed in other legal populations across multiple types of measures.” (pp. 467–468)

“Our third hypothesis was that several parent characteristics would predict variability in knowledge. Understanding was expected to be significantly lower for African American than White parents and those with lower rather than higher income and education. Poorer general legal understanding emerged among African American parents and those with lower levels of education, but not among parents who reported lower annual incomes. […] certainly greater education or perhaps nuances in quality of education could account, at least in part, for the differences in understanding of legal terms and processes. However, because education was included in our models, it does not fully account for our observed racial differences. Perhaps the way in which African American parents approach the system (e.g., with more caution given their general distrust of the justice system) or the way in which dependency professionals approach these parents (e.g., presentation of less information given perceptions of parents’ ability to understand legal concepts) contributed to the evident racial differences in legal understanding.” (p. 468)

“Other noteworthy characteristics also predicted general legal knowledge. With age and greater time in the system, understanding improved. However, parents’ case-specific understanding was unrelated to time spent in the system. […] Finally, parents who had previous involvement with the dependency system as a child and mothers (compared with fathers) understood the system better.” (p. 468)

“Despite these limitations, our study contributed valuable new knowledge. That is, we systematically examined, for the first time to the best of our knowledge, legal understanding in a critically important and marginalized population of legal participants We assessed their understanding empirically, so that we could begin to lay the groundwork for what is typical in terms of parent understanding, where gaps exist, and where interventions to augment understanding might be needed. We also laid the groundwork for future work assessing more nuanced facets of legal understanding, and critically, whether better understanding predicts increased compliance and engagement. Ultimately, the decision to fully engage in the dependency system is up to the parents and families involved. However, to engage, parents also need to fully understand their cases. Such understanding would provide them with the power to improve the plight of their families.” (p. 470)

Translating Research into Practice

“Several theoretical and practical implications can be drawn from the study’s results. First, when situated within the broader literature and theorizing on legal rights, procedural justice, and therapeutic jurisprudence, our findings suggest that more consideration be given to parents’ experience of due process in juvenile dependency cases. Low levels of understanding may inhibit parents from receiving the intended benefits of their due process rights. […] Moreover, parents’ understanding may be related to important facets of procedural justice such as participant “voice” and “neutrality” in decision-making. […] If parents do not have a basic, general understanding of the system, it may be difficult for them to articulate or even hold a specific viewpoint about their case. In addition, judges may provide information about decisions made in hearings, but if parents do not understand these decisions, the judgments and outcomes can hardly be deemed “transparent.”” (p. 469)

“With regard to therapeutic jurisprudence, if poor understanding is not addressed, parents’ well-being may be adversely affected. That is, they may experience harm or stress stemming from confusion in an already difficult process. Second, in practical terms, our findings shed light on those parents at greatest risk of poor understanding within the dependency system. As has been found in the criminal justice system, minority families are particularly at risk of having a lower understanding of the dependency system, both generally and with regard to specific details of their case. Third, our findings highlight the need for assessments and programs to ensure that parents understand the general dependency process and important aspects of their case. […] although creating and enforcing knowledge standards in dependency cases would potentially place a burden on the judicial system, failing to adequately address low parental understanding in dependency cases is likely far more costly—to families and society as a whole, and also to the children of these parents who need permanency and stability. […] At the very least, jurisdictions should invest in programming aimed specifically at increasing parents’ understanding, particularly programs that help all families understand, including fathers, parents who are new to the system, parents who have not had prior dependency contact as children, and parents from low educational and minority backgrounds. All of these parents are at high risk of poor understanding, and evidence-based programs may be especially beneficial in improving long-term outcomes for these children, parents, and families.” (p. 469)

“In future directions of this work for practice, juvenile dependency courts may consider investing in families in two key ways: (a) Assessing parents’ understanding of their cases and (b) Providing opportunities for parents to increase their understanding. Of importance, implementing these procedures may be less costly than other measures (e.g., hiring more attorneys or social workers or paying for more of their time) and may contribute tremendously to parents’ engagement in the system, including their presence at hearings and active participation in court-mandated services (e.g., counseling). […] Assessments of parent understanding can be included in initial case planning and may provide an opportunity at the outset for parents to ask questions about how their case will work and to coordinate a plan for remaining informed as the case progresses.” (p. 469)

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“The study was […] limited, in part, by the nature of how data were collected, highlighting the need for continued research on legal understanding and experiences in this important population. For one, the stressful nature of having participated in these perhaps confusing and challenging hearings may have increased parents’ difficulty attending to and recounting case details, particularly because the interviews occurred on the same day as their hearings. Although this was advantageous in terms of recruitment, it may be valuable to question parents several days after their hearing to assess their knowledge in a potentially less emotionally laden context. Also, our sample comprised exclusively parents who showed up at court, and included more mothers than fathers. Mothers are more likely to be involved and participate in their dependency cases than fathers, and certainly their understanding is critical to the case. […] Obtaining information from both parents, whether they are together or not, would be a valuable addition to the study, as would collecting information from parents who fail to show for court. […] Finally, our initial cross-sectional study must be followed by longitudinal research to evaluate, in a temporal and causal manner, the links between parents’ understanding, behavior, and the case’s outcome, especially in terms of parents’ understanding of their own case and its requirements. Such investigations could further consider the broader culture and climate of social services and the courts to gain more comprehensive knowledge of parents’ understanding and experiences.” (p. 470)

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Kseniya Katsman

Kseniya Katsman is a Master’s student in Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her interests include forensic application of dialectical behavior therapy, cultural competence in forensic assessment, and risk assessment, specifically suicide risk. She plans to continue her education and pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.