Direct Representation Program - Child Advocates


  • Child Advocates, Indiana

Focus Area

  • Emerging Focus Area

"If I was an Indiana foster youth, there is a 65% chance I will have an annual income below the poverty line at age 23."

Phyllis Armstrong, Vice President of Program Operations, Child Advocates

The Issue

Indiana is one of the few states that does not require legal counsel for any youth in foster care. Without adequate and quality representation, these youth may experience negative outcomes—such as placement in a locked facility—without ever really understanding or exercising their rights. This problem has become especially urgent in Indiana, which has faced a staggering number of child welfare cases in recent years. And Indiana youth spend an average of 548 days in the child welfare system. During that time, they can also face the instability of multiple placements. Nearly a quarter of foster youth are moved more than four times and nearly 2,000 of current foster youth will be moved eight or more times.

The instability that children suffer from their experiences in the system are detrimental on many fronts. They are more likely to exhibit higher levels of aggression, decreased behavioral development, and difficulty developing healthy relationships. Indiana youth who have experienced foster care have worse outcomes than their peers in areas of education, employment, criminal justice system involvement, housing and economic instability.

For Indiana foster youth:

  • There is a 45% chance they won’t graduate. That goes up to a 76% chance for Black foster youth.
  • There is a 35% chance they will not have stable housing at age 21.
  • There is a 65% chance they will have an annual income below the poverty line at age 23.

And these outcomes are not only a problem in Indiana. There are nearly 400,000 children and youth in foster care in the U.S. Those who experience foster care suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder at a rate nearly five times higher than the general population. An average of one in four youth in foster care will become homeless within four years of aging out of the system.​

The suffering these children are experiencing could potentially be lessened by providing them legal representation helping them achieve their desired outcomes. Proper legal counsel can reduce the time these youth spend in out-of-home placements due to unnecessary removals or placement changes and by the complexity of the reunification process.


The Intervention

Child Advocates serves children and youth in Indiana through multiple programs committed to being the voice of children, standing up for their liberties, and working tirelessly to keep them safe and secure with an opportunity to thrive. Their Direct Representation Program provides youth beginning involvement with the child welfare system an experienced attorney.​

​Inform. Advocate. Protect. Encourage. These are the four goals of the Direct Representation Program. The program aims to not only provide expressed-interest legal representation to older youth in the child welfare system, but also to begin collecting data on the effectiveness of counsel for children. These attorneys, who are experienced in working with minors and well-versed in child welfare law, will represent each child in court, keep them informed about the case and process, advocate for their expressed interests, protect their well-being, and encourage their involvement in decision-making.

Research Question

What is the impact of expressed-interest representation for older children in the foster care system on time to permanency, probability of reunification, stability while in care, likelihood of placement in a residential facility, educational outcomes, and juvenile justice system interactions?

Intended Outcomes

Indiana youth in the Direct Representation Program will experience:

A decrease in time to a permanent home

A decrease in time out of home

An increase in parental reunification

Less time in residential facilities

Less interactions with the juvenile justice system

A higher high school graduation rate


Research Study Design

This study is a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to evaluate the impact of offering legal representation to children in the child welfare system. Since Child Advocates does not have the capacity and resources to offer representation to every child who needs it, they will use randomization as a fair way to decide which children will be offered representation.

Judges will assign Child Advocates attorneys to represent children assigned to the treatment group so that Child Advocates can have access to their contact information. These youth will be offered legal representation by attorneys from Child Advocates, and will sign an age-appropriate retainer if they want to accept this service. Attorneys will begin advocating for the expressed interests of children who agree to representation immediately.

Children in the control group will not be offered representation by Child Advocates attorneys, although in rare circumstances, they may receive representation from another court-appointed attorney if the judge overseeing their case decides it is necessary.

There is a growing body of literature assessing the impact of legal representation for children in child welfare cases, but the literature lacks experimental evidence on the causal impact of legal counsel for U.S.-based foster children on education and criminal justice outcomes. This study which looks at a broad range of child outcomes will be a major contribution to this literature. Child Advocates hopes that this study will generate evidence which they can use to educate the state government on the benefits of providing legal counsel for children in the welfare system.


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