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The Two Worlds Of Legal Representation

During a virtual town hall last week, parents asked gut-wrenching questions to child welfare leadership:

“When can I see my kids again?”

“I was having unsupervised visits with them. Why can’t they come live with me?”

“Will the court terminate my rights even if I can’t get services?”

The pain and fear underlying each question was obvious. Throughout the meeting, I resisted the urge to simply reassure each parent that things will be okay, and that everyone in the system would be empathetic to these concerns. I felt myself dreaming of the system I wished I had, only to remind myself of the system I actually have.

Instead, I responded with a rote answer, “Call your lawyer. This is the time that they need to be fighting for you more than ever. This is why they are there.” 

Then I got the question I dread most. “I can’t reach my lawyer. He won’t return my calls. What should I do?” 

My heart sank. The professional assigned with the sole responsibility to advocate for a parent in need was no…

The Need For Extraordinary Efforts

Times of crisis reveal a system’s values.
Consider this scenario, likely to repeat itself across the country. In a month or two or more from now, my client will appear before a juvenile court judge for the first time since the coronavirus forced courts to close their doors. In the intervening months, she didn’t have the chance to visit her child. She wasn’t provided with any services since most providers couldn’t operate due to public health concerns or executive orders.
What did not stop during this time period was her substance abuse issues – rather, they continued on in full force, exacerbated by anxiety, isolation, and fear heightened by the pandemic. Little progress, both substantively and procedurally, will have been made towards reunifying the family.
How will we respond to this? What will we do when parents – through no fault of their own – have lost connections to their children? Or have lost access to resources that would have helped them address the safety risks that broug…

The Need To Modernize Juvenile Courts

Last week, I received word that many courts – including the juvenile court in which I practice – were closing. That is, for the indefinite future, my court would not be holding any hearings, other than emergency hearings, to address whether a child needs to be removed for their immediate safety.

So parents that have met the milestones to reunify with their children might have to wait because that is not deemed an emergency. Parents that are requesting more visits with their families during this time of crisis is not an emergency.

Children stuck in group homes or residential centers might not be able to get out, because the type of placement in which they call home during the pandemic is not the subject of what our courts would consider to be an emergency. Older youth might reach the age of majority without ever appearing before a judge, because the transition from childhood to adulthood while in the custody of the child welfare agency is not an emergency. 

Undoubtedly, there was no w…

Embracing A Culture of Scrutiny

"Your Father Is As Worthless As Your Mother"

“Your father is as worthless as your mother.”

Those words – said by a caseworker to a 13-year old child whose parents were addicted to heroin –  jumped out at me as I read the casefile. My heart immediately sank.

I tried to imagine how I would have felt if someone had uttered those words to me as a child. And I tried to visualize the sadness on my children’s faces if they had heard those words. Devastated is the one word that kept coming to me. No child should ever hear someone talk about their parents that way. Ever.

Many argue that the biggest challenge confronting child welfare is a lack of resources. We lack funds for prevention services. We don’t have enough foster parents. We need more high-quality lawyers. The list goes on and on.

But perhaps what we lack most is compassion. Will we ever be able to engage families if we think of them as “worthless?”  Or if we think they are “too dirty to parent,” as I heard one lawyer tell his client?  Or if we ignore their pain in our zeal to…

Instilling Hope, Any Way We Can