Child Advocacy Unit

Promoting Dignity, Social Justice and Better Outcomes for Children 

The Child Advocacy Unit (CAU) was created in 1974 and contracts with the City of Philadelphia to represent children. The children we represent:

  • Are resilient, funny, smart, unique and thoughtful individuals
  • May have experienced neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or abandonment
  • Range in age from infancy to 21 years old
  • Can be heard in specialty courts such as Crossover Court or Wrap Court

History of the Defender’s Child Advocacy Unit

The Child Advocacy Unit (CAU) first began as a pilot project in 1974. Within just 2 years, it grew into a federally funded program providing legal representation to dependent children. With an initial staff of five, the CAU’s original mandate was to advocate for the protection of a child who was abused, neglected, or deprived, and to represent a child placed on an involuntary mental health commitment.

During this period, Family Court judges appointed the CAU to a child only when there was “a divergence of interest between parent and child.” As judges rotated through Family Court, they relied on the same “divergence of interest” standard to appoint the CAU to represent a child in divorce and adoption proceedings, in paternity suits, and to minor organ donors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. By the 1977-78 fiscal year, the CAU caseload had skyrocketed to 3002 children.

As a result of a 1990 class action lawsuit, T.M. v. City of Philadelphia, the Family Court was ordered to appoint a child advocate to every child in Philadelphia with a dependent petition. The CAU received the bulk of the dependency cases of Philadelphia children and youth moving forward.

While the CAU continued to grow, the interdisciplinary approach of law and social work grew along with it. As soon as the CAU receives a court appointment order, each child is assigned a social worker and attorney team to represent them. It was, and continues to be, the belief of the CAU that the combined practice of law and social work leads to the most comprehensive approach to representing our clients.

Throughout the 90s and into the early years of 2000 the numbers of children the CAU represented continued to increase significantly. As a result, more attorneys and social workers were hired to ensure that the specific needs of each client could be closely addressed and to continue to promote zealous representation and best outcomes for our clients. As of 2023 there are 32 social workers, 29 attorneys and 5 administrative staff employed full time at the CAU.

Child Advocate Attorneys complete independent assessments of dependency cases and advocate in court for the delivery of services to our clients and their families.

Child Advocate Social Workers assess a child’s emotional, social, physical, and educational needs.

The assigned CAU Attorney and Social Worker:

  • Review the dependency petition
  • Meet with the client
  • Develop a theory of the case
  • Identify & prepare witnesses
  • Review documents & prepare exhibits
  • Research & write legal memoranda
  • Prepare social work assessments & recommendations
  • Litigate the case in court
  • Provide legal and social work recommendations to the court

We are guided by the principles and ethics of the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law, the Juvenile Act, and the Adoption and Safe Families Act.

Our clients are represented by an attorney and social worker team who work together throughout the life of a case to:

  • Protect the child’s legal rights;
  • Advocate for their best interest; and
  • Promote permanency, stability, well-being, and positive outcomes

Helpful Terms in Dependency Court


  • AIC: Achieving Independence Center; provides resources, classes, and employment and housing services to youth preparing to age out of the system
  • ARC: Achieving Reunification Center; provides support services to families with children in out-of-home placements who are experiencing barriers to reunification
  • CAU: Child Advocacy Unit; contracted by the City of Philadelphia to represent children in dependency court; every child’s legal team includes a child advocate attorney and child advocate social worker; part of the Defender’s Association of Philadelphia
  • CBH: Community Behavioral Health; organization contracted by the City of Philadelphia to provide mental health and substance use services
  • CEU: third-party organization located in the Philadelphia Family Court that performs drug tests and assists with identifying appropriate substance use treatment plans
  • CLS: Community Legal Services; provides free legal advice and representation to low income residents of Philadelphia
  • CUA: Community Umbrella Agency; agency contracted by DHS to provide services and support to families
  • DHS: Pennsylvania Department of Human Services; government agency in charge of investigating alleged child abuse or neglect and overseeing the wellbeing of dependent children
  • Support Center for Child Advocates: provides legal assistance and social services to Philadelphia children who have experienced abuse or neglect
  • SWAN: Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network; organization partnered with DHS to support county agencies in expediting permanency services

Types of Hearings:

  • Shelter Care hearing: occurs within 72 hours of the OPC; judge determines if the child will remain in an out-of-home placement until the adjudication hearing
  • Adjudication hearing: one of the first court hearing of a case; judge rules whether the child qualifies as a dependent child; decides whether the case will close out or remain open
  • Permanency hearing: occur every 3 months throughout the life of the case; court reviews the permanency goal and any progress made towards achieving that goal; determine whether a child needs to remain in DHS custody
  • Termination of Parental Rights hearing: occurs in adoption cases; judge decides whether to strip a parent of their legal rights to the child

Permanency Plans:

  • Permanency: when a child is stable, secure, and safe in a home with a caregiver who is willing and able to meet all their needs throughout childhood; ultimate goal of every case; case is closed once permanency is achieved
  • Reunification: goal of the case is to return the dependent child into the care and custody of their parents or legal guardian; default goal for all cases for at least the first 15 months after the case opened
  • PLC: Permanent Legal Custody; the caregiver is granted the rights to make decisions as a parent without needing to terminate parental rights
  • APPLA: Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement; permanency plan in which DHS continues to provide care and custody to a child after all other permanency options have been exhausted; a child with this case goal must be 18 years of age or older 

Individuals Involved:

  • ACS: Assistant City Solicitor; attorneys who represent DHS in dependency court
  • Dependent child: a child who is without proper parental care or control
  • EDM: Education Decision Maker; a person who is responsible for making educational decisions for the child; the parent or legal guardian is always the default EDM for a child unless another person is appointed by the court
  • Guardian Ad Litem: attorney appointed to represent the interests of the child
  • Wheel Attorney: independent attorney contracted by the City of Philadelphia to provide legal representation when the public defender is unable due to a conflict


  • BID: Best Interest Determination; meeting to determine the best education option/school for a child
  • CPS: Child Protective Services; report alleging possible child abuse
  • GPS: General Protective Services; report alleging possible child neglect
  • Kinship: when the child is placed in the care of relatives or unrelated adults who have family-like ties with the child, rather than placing the child in a foster home
  • OPC: Order of Protective Custody; grants DHS the ability to temporarily remove a child from a home until a Shelter Care hearing is held; occurs after DHS investigation confirms a present threat to the child’s safety if they were to remain in the home
  • SIL: Supervised Independent Living; program assists youth with locating housing and paying for necessities such as rent and groceries while they continue school/employment; assist with transitioning to adulthood; youth must be an adjudicated dependent and at least 18 years old
  • VOLS: voluntary termination of parental rights

Client Resources

Mimi Laver, CAU Chief 

Rebecca Mainor, Assistant Chief

Beth Kahn, CAU Attorney Training

Sharene Ginyard, CAU Recruitment

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