Working in the Best Interest of Children: Facilitating the Collaboration of Lawyers and Social Workers in Abuse and Neglect Cases

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Working in the best interest of children in abuse and neglect cases is a daunting task for both lawyers and social workers. The legal system is inadequate to meet the myriad needs of children and families in crisis. Yet only under the authority of the legal system can social work and other mental health professions intervene in families on behalf of children. The juvenile court system has been buffeted historically by the competing values and methods of social work and law. The institution and its rules are still evolving today. This dynamic environment means that even if competition for "ownership" of the system can be set aside; collaboration will be challenged by ever-changing expectations.

The adversarial system's focus on "winning and losing" fails to adequately take into account the relationships that are at the heart of most child abuse and neglect matters. The American legal system often focuses on individual rights and responsibilities and does no accommodate a more inclusive view of a collective "family" right. The adversarial system's focus on the individual neglects the relationships among many individuals. In the area of child welfare, "rights" must be viewed within the context of child protection. The adversarial system distorts the focus by pitting one party's rights against another's.

Observers of the juvenile court system have long noted that the stakeholders in the system misunderstand or confuse their own roles and the roles of others. The source of these misunderstandings has been less thoroughly explored. This article will highlight some of the problems encountered by professionals working in this truly interdisciplinary field and will suggest methods for improving collaboration. Social workers and attorneys often lack a shared basis in language, ethical precepts and world view which leads to an inability to resolve those misunderstandings. This article examines the background, structure and history of the juvenile and family courts, emphasizing the tensions between social work and legal visions of the court. It examines the roles and conceptions held by both social workers and attorneys within the system and describe the difficulties both groups have in reconciling their competing views of the goals and methods for child protection. The article concludes by suggesting a variety of reforms that could facilitate more effective interdisciplinary cooperation between social workers and lawyers within the child protection system, including cross-training.

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Rutgers Law Record





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