Meet an OCR Attorney

Each quarter, the OCR will feature an attorney on our Meet an OCR Attorney page. Learn about the individuals who make OCR's mission a reality through their passion, skill, and dedication to Colorado's kids!

 

Share a story with us by providing your own answers to our Q&A or suggesting an OCR attorney to profile. Click on the Share Your Story / Nominate link at the bottom of this page to get started.

Photo of Brad Bittan
Brad Bittan

Brad Bittan takes delinquency appointments in the 2nd JD and provides Education Litigation Support for OCR.

Why did you choose to practice child welfare law?
My parents. Despite lives filled with many challenges, they made sure that their children would be provided with the opportunities to meet their potential. Feeling so blessed, I wanted to help provide those opportunities to other children who faced significant disadvantages in their lives.  

What has been the most rewarding moment for you while working with children and families in the delinquency system?
There have been many, including those instances when children can benefit through special education services. A singular rewarding moment occurred when I was appointed as guardian ad litem in a direct filed case. Defense counsel and I successfully advocated for the case to be transferred to juvenile court. I cannot think of a scenario where it could be in a child’s best interests for her/his case to be in adult court and face unimaginably horrifying circumstances. Therefore, this case was a very exciting opportunity to collaborate with defense counsel because the stakes were so high.

Describe a challenge you face doing this work and your strategy to overcome it.
Effectively engaging the parent/guardian’s support in their child’s case.

Parents/guardians sometimes feel frustrated with GAL involvement because of a perception that we are trying to take over their role. When you think about it, the parent/guardian is perhaps the only involved individual in the delinquency case who does not have the benefit of a lawyer or other informed professionals to help them navigate this process. Ironically, the parent/guardian remains one of if not the best opportunity to engage the child and hopefully redirect his or her behaviors.

I have learned from the research that engaging parents in delinquency court beneficially impacts recidivism. A child often relies on what a parent thinks about a situation. Most of all, a parent values being treated fairly by the process even more than whether their child wins her/his case. So if the parent/guardian feels good about the process, the child is more likely to feel the same way. Another finding from the research is that parents/guardians talk about the juvenile justice system with each other in their neighborhoods. If courts make active efforts to engage them, it produces an improved civic mindset about the concept of justice and eventually helps to reduce the level of crime in the community.

It was due to these kinds of circumstances that I decided to author a parent/guardian handbook in Denver Juvenile Court. My hope is that the handbook will enhance the overall quality of the parent/guardian’s relationship with the professionals. My other hope is that it will further empower them to help their child during the case. If the parent/guardian is effectively engaged, the process works better for everyone. Most importantly, for the child.

Share a litigation strategy or case example when you were successful despite opposition from other parties to the case.
During a sentencing hearing, every involved professional in the case other than myself (and defense counsel) recommended that the child be committed to the Division of Youth Corrections. There was a strong factual basis for their recommendation. Previously, the child had multiple adjudications and probation revocation petitions filed against him. However, my sentencing recommendation was to maintain the child in the community. This recommendation was based upon my investigation that included detailed contact with the child’s law enforcement advocate (LEA) who had spent meaningful time with the child. The LEA mentioned to me that when this child was on track, he was respectful, focused on objectives, personable, and had the potential to do what the court expected of him. He further believed that the child was still young enough to salvage the mess that he made for himself. Most significantly, the LEA expressed that he was more than willing to remain involved in the child’s life. No other professional brought this information to the attention of the court. When the court heard this update, it formed the factual basis for the court to give this child an opportunity to demonstrate compliance in the community.  

This litigation strategy was based on the Chief Justice Directive’s mandate that a GAL conduct a timely, independent, comprehensive, and ongoing investigation. It demonstrated that such an investigation has real value and can truly make a difference for a child.

What advice do you have for an attorney who is new to child welfare law?
Practice the 3Cs: Be calm, caring, and competent.

What drives you to continue in this line of work and do you have any advice for the seasoned attorney?
There’s always another child to help. I sometimes correlate the GAL’s role to an emergency room technician and aftercare specialist. The first step is to help stabilize the crisis. Then it’s about helping the child heal. Eventually, it’s helping to build foundations so that the child can eventually flourish. So my advice is to celebrate the small victories along the way. It’s a gradual process but the possible rewards to the child, and by extension the GAL, can be huge and last a lifetime.

Photo of Heather Cannon
Heather Cannon

Heather Cannon practices as a Guardian ad Litem in the Fourteenth Judicial District.

Why did you choose to practice child welfare law?
I attended law school at Gonzaga and I loved the social justice aspect of child welfare law.  I have found in my practice that there are very few areas where the legal system has the ability to truly change lives in a positive way; however, practicing in the area of child welfare provides an opportunity to assist children and families in making incredible changes in their lives.  

What has been the most rewarding moment for you while working with children and families in the dependency and neglect system?
The most rewarding moment I have had while working with children and families in the dependency and neglect system came about four years ago when a juvenile I represented wrote me (actually hand wrote) a letter and expressed her dreams, her goals and how much of an impact I had made on her life.  I keep that letter in my desk and read it every day to remind myself of the amazing potential we have to impact someone’s life on a daily basis through our work with the Office of the Child’s Representative.

Describe a challenge you face doing this work and your strategies to overcome it.
A common challenge in child welfare law is the difficulty in locating necessary resources in a rural community that are able to address very complex family dynamics or addictions. I have found that developing a strong resource list outside of the area, as well as inside the area, really is essential to being effective in this area of law to achieve the best outcomes for children and families.

What advice do you have for an attorney who is new to child welfare law?
The best advice I have is to always focus on the positive in any situation presented in the cases you are assigned.  As an attorney who has a general practice, I can honestly say that this area of law has the potential to be the most rewarding career choice an attorney can make simply because of the ability to help so many people in a short period of time.  However, I can also say the situations that present themselves in these cases can be the most heartbreaking and it is easy for a new attorney to become overwhelmed or discouraged.  I have found that there is usually a silver lining in nearly every situation, even if it is learning how to address a new situation or locating new resources that can be used in the future.

What drives you to continue in this line of work and do you have any advice for seasoned attorney?
The primary driving force in continuing in this line of work is truly the passion I have for this area of law and the desire to continue to help people through the legal system.  The only advice I would have to offer for a seasoned attorney is to pass on their knowledge of the law and their experience in our chosen field of practice.  

Share a litigation strategy or case example when you were successful despite opposition from other parties to the case.
Wow, there are so many to choose from over the years; this is truly a difficult question to answer.  Candidly, I believe the best litigation strategy in child welfare cases is to ensure that the child (if old enough) is able to form a relationship with you where they feel they can trust decisions you are making on their behalf and they are open to helping you make those decisions.  So many times, it seems that the case becomes very parent focused and the child becomes a secondary issue in the case.  As a Guardian ad Litem, I feel my role is to ensure the case starts and remains child focused throughout the duration of the case and that the Judges have the ability to form a positive relationship with the children, as well.  I have found that as long as the focus of my case remains on the child and that I work to ensure that other parties in the case are focused on this as well, legal outcomes that are best for the child are nearly always accomplished.

Photo of Jonathon Carlson
Jonathon Carlson

Jonathon practices in the 1st JD as a Guardian ad litem and Respondent Parent Counsel Attorney and in the 18th JD as a Respondent Parent Counsel Attorney.

Why did you choose to practice child welfare law?
I am passionate about working with children and families. I like working in juvenile law because of the relationships that are built, and I feel that I can have a direct impact on families’ lives. So many of the people I work with feel that their voices are never heard, so I work very diligently to ensure that they do not feel that way during their court process. I particularly like working with teenagers who have never had positive supports or role models and I try to help them have a more positive outlook on life and their future.

What has been the most rewarding moment for you while working with children and families in the dependency and neglect system?
Other than helping to achieve the goal of a child returning home to his/her parents set up for long-term success, the most rewarding moments for me are seeing a youth that I work with accomplish a personal goal such as playing a sport or graduating high school.

Describe a challenge you face doing this work and your strategies to overcome it.
The biggest challenge that I face on a daily basis is having tough conversations with parents and clients, telling them something that is hard to hear yet maintaining a positive working relationship. In those instances, I try to maintain a future-focused optimistic outlook and keep the focus on the betterment of the family rather than on one person’s issues.

What advice do you have for an attorney that is new to child welfare law?
Make sure that you are also taking care of yourself and your own family. All attorneys in this field give so much of themselves to their clients and cases that sometimes there is not much left at the end of the day. It is extremely important to have some balance and make sure you have time and energy left to enjoy life.

What drives you to continue in this line of work?
I continue to be driven by the idea that the work we do is important, and that the families we work with are in desperate need of high-quality representation. My advice for the seasoned attorney is to remember why you got into this type of work, and, if you are no longer passionate, find a way to be re-energized because your clients deserve it.

Share a litigation strategy or case example when you were successful despite opposition from other parties to the case.
There are undoubtedly times that we face opposition from all parties and end up feeling like we are on our own island. When I am faced with a similar situation, I make sure to utilize all of my resources and seek assistance and advice from other uninvolved people who can give an unbiased opinion. It is easy to have tunnel vision when you feel strongly about a particular position, so I find it helpful to work through the possible outcomes and scenarios with other attorneys in advance of engaging in litigation. So, by the time you end up before the Judge, you are prepared and have attempted to think though all possible issues.

Photo of Ronisha Carson
Ronisha Carson

Ronisha practices in the 2nd Judicial District as a Guardian ad litem and Staff Attorney with the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center.

Why did you choose to practice child welfare law?
I chose child welfare law because I have a background working with youth as a teacher and college mentor. It was a natural fit for me to continue working with youth as an attorney.

What has been the most rewarding moment for you while working with children and families in the dependency and neglect system?
The most rewarding moments are successful case closures after reunification. Not the cases where there has been marginal effort from the parent(s), but when the parent(s) really worked hard on their treatment plans to make the necessary changes for their children.

Describe a challenge you face doing this work and your strategies to overcome it.
The biggest challenge is the mental and emotional energy it takes to do the job well and advocate for the best interests of the children. Sometimes the cases are very adversarial and what you are asking for is simply for the benefit of the child’s well-being, but you have to fight so hard for it. That can really be emotionally draining.

What advice do you have for an attorney that is new to child welfare law?
My advice is to have a good self-care plan in place. It could be regular exercise or having the right supports in place which will allow a healthy work/life balance. Additionally, take time to read through the Children’s Code and relevant case law often. I found that I gained a better understanding of the Code as I gained more hands-on experience. Lastly, do not take anything personal and keep on fighting.

What drives you to continue in this line of work?
The children I work with drive me to continue working in this field. Advice for seasoned attorneys is to never fall back in the status quo.

Share a litigation strategy or case example when you were successful despite opposition from other parties to the case.
I represented the best interests of three siblings who were faced with a second removal from their parents. The case was an EPP case and had been open one year. To keep them together after removal, the Department placed them in a group center for children with developmental and physical disabilities. The Department’s placement desk kept saying there was no other placement. These were young children (all under 9 years of age) that did not meet the criteria of this placement. I began making calls myself and contacted the prior foster parents of the children. The prior foster parents were willing to care for the children and, although it had been a year, the children remembered them. The oldest child cried and asked for the family during transport to the group center placement. There was a lasting mutual bond. The Court ordered the children be placed with the prior foster parents despite opposition from parent counsel and, initially, from the Department. The children thrived and made great progress in short time after being moved. On hard days, I think of this case and it gives me strength to keep fighting.

Photo of Esther Cho
Esther Cho

Esther practices in the 1st Judicial District in Colorado.

Why did you choose to practice child welfare law?
I am in the field of child welfare law through the good fortune of serendipity. I went to law school as a second career student to become a criminal defense attorney for indigent clients. I began my legal career as a public defender in a rural district but through happy chance I was introduced to OCR and the field of child welfare law. Having spent my first career dedicated to children and youth as a United Methodist minister, I knew right away that this field was a perfect match for me.

What has been the most rewarding moment for you while working with children and families in the dependency and neglect system?
It’s too hard to pick just one, isn’t it? I have felt grateful and honored to be invited into the lives of children and families with trust and confidence in communities I otherwise would never have known. I have felt as proud as any mother hen watching a scared, angry girl grow into a young, courageous woman as she gave the student speech at her graduation. I am happy and somewhat surprised to find how much I have learned, and that I am truly able to advocate for and defend the best interest of kids through my growing legal skills.

If I had to pick, one of the most rewarding events in the past five years was being actively a part of building a community-based drug court program in the 3rd JD from the ground-up and seeing everyone—respondent parents’ counsel, GALs, county attorneys, judges, probation officers, sheriff’s deputies, mental health professionals, Department of Human Services caseworkers and directors, respondent parents, children, extended families, and the community at large—the whole “village” transformed through the joint effort.

Describe a challenge you face doing this work and your strategies to overcome it.
The stakes are so high in this field—the life of a child and that of an entire family. Because it is so important and because I am passionate, I become engrossed in my work. I get depressed. I did not start out this way—in fact I was the opposite of this before law school—but I am now a pretty jaded person. I get depressed that the world is as it is for so many kids and families, and disillusioned about our ability to change it. I have lost that hopeful spark in my spirit that really believed we could change the world and make a big and lasting difference. One strategy for this pitfall for me is to spend time with my kiddos. I’m too small to change the world, but maybe, just maybe I have made a small difference for one child, one day at a time. That child certainly makes a difference to me.

What advice do you have for an attorney that is new to child welfare law?
I think it is easy to become disillusioned and burnt-out in this highly emotionally-charged field. While as attorneys many of us may be natural “Lone Rangers,” I think as human beings we are designed to be at our best when we are connected with one another. Investing in the larger community in which I work, valuing collaborative relationships with other GALs, and forging relationships of trust and mutual respect with opposing counsel, other professionals, as well as families involved is time-intensive and not always an easy path. But, for me this has been a source of strength and humanity. It has kept me grounded and carried me in times when I felt depleted. Maybe it can work for others, too.

What drives you to continue in this line of work?
I really love working in this field. I love that though we are attorneys zealously representing opposing parties, we have a shared goal of furthering the best interest of children. I love that my opinion about the best interest of my client has a place in my advocacy for her, as well as his own opinion. I continue in this line of work because along with the heart break, there is also true joy.

I wouldn’t call it advice, but a thought for seasoned attorneys might be an invitation to make a special effort to reach out to mentor new attorneys. I think there is much to be gained on both sides!

Photo of Theodore Demos
Theodore Demos

Theo practices in the 13th Judicial District in Colorado.

Why did you choose to practice child welfare law?
I’m not sure if I chose child welfare law, or it chose me. I worked through law school as an Emergency Medical Technician, where my initial exposure to children and families in crisis was intense and visceral, but always brief. In the ER, children were treated for a traumatic injury, ignored medical conditions, or acute mental health issues, and then released. The questions were always the same: “how do you prevent such tragedies?” and “who helps them once they leave?” The answers were elusive . . . looking back, I regret not looking for them sooner. It took 10 years, but as an attorney with a general practice in the wilds of Eastern Colorado, I began taking GAL appointments before OCR came into being, comfortable with a base knowledge of the Children’s Code, but amazed by the level of expertise needed in areas beyond law to truly make a difference in the life of a child. I wanted to know more. I felt like I could do more. A late realization, but no less impactful.

What has been the most rewarding moment for you while working with children and families in the dependency and neglect system?
I’m not sure I can say there was ever a kind of denouement, where everything came together for me in any one case. The most rewarding experiences, however, usually involve a child or a family who’ve proven to themselves they can succeed without caseworkers hounding them or help from treatment providers. Maybe the moment comes months, or even years, after a case closes. After a case worker pours their sweat and tears into a treatment plan, after a child struggles then succeeds in a residential treatment program, and after a judge and respondents’ counsel “gently” prod a parent to work towards an end, the look of both gratification and self-accomplishment in a child or a parent’s face is one of the most satisfying parts of my practice.

Describe a challenge you face doing this work and your strategies to overcome it.
The children whose best interests we represent are usually caught somewhere between hope and chaos. To help them find their way out of that impossible predicament; to gather the best information and paint the best picture for a court requires a relationship between a GAL and child based on trust. Building that trust with a child over the short time a case is typically open is the greatest challenge. Getting them to believe you’re truly interested in their lives, their music, their friends, their likes and dislikes, is a critical first step. Remembering and sharing those things with them over time is next. Empty promises degrade that trust, so giving them honest answers to hard questions, while sometimes hard to swallow, gets them to look at you rather than through you. If you can get to that point where you’re no longer a window and instead a mirror, your words and actions can begin to have an effect.

What advice do you have for an attorney who is new to child welfare law?
As lawyers we’re taught that advocacy means action, and that a strong, vocal presence is often the key to successfully advocating for your client. Children are different. Choose your advice and your opinions carefully and learn to get a point across to them in as few words as possible. The less they hear from you the more they hear from themselves. The greatest skill you can bring to child welfare law is the ability to connect a child to themselves, and at the same time keep caregivers, caseworkers and treatment providers connected to the child. Keeping adults focused on a child is mostly linear and instinctive. With children it’s more daunting. If you can figure out how to shine a pinpoint of light on the immense breadth and depth of a child’s needs, both in and out of the courtroom, you’ll improve outcomes, feel you’ve changed a life for the better, and maybe smile a little more than your average attorney.

What drives you to continue in this line of work and do you have any advice for a seasoned attorney?
The artist Degas was famous for his paintings of ballerinas—but he never showed them performing. His paintings were of them practicing, because he saw beauty more in the effort than in the final production on stage. As Guardians ad litem, new and seasoned alike, if we can find some beauty in trying to find perfect solutions in an imperfect world, in the end, regardless of the outcome, our work will be worth the effort, and children’s lives will be better for it.

Photo of Dani Diercks
Dani Diercks

Dani practices in the Second Judicial District in Colorado (Denver).

Why did you choose to practice child welfare law?
Being a part of the solution in the child welfare field has been my direction since I was very young. I recall struggling in kindergarten to decide if I was going to be a princess or an attorney when I grew up. I was blessed to personally experience the system with the adoption of my brother. There is an opportunity for an improved and better life for all families involved in the child welfare system when there are common and positive intentions, roles and goals. I feel blessed to work with the youth and families I do today. They constantly are a source of new lessons, outstanding resilience and unwavering hope. The legal field has uniquely added a voice to these youth, which I believe can be a healing process from the initial hearing.

What has been the most rewarding moment for you while working with children and families in the dependency and neglect system?
Watching my youth use the tools and skills in professional and family situations and truly no longer needing my services. Seeing a child advocate for themselves in a courtroom, school meeting, therapy session, etc. is priceless. I have had the honor of attending many graduations and watch the young adult grace the stage as the first generation in their family to obtain a diploma.

Describe a challenge you face doing this work and your strategies to overcome it.
In order to be successful, the youth and family do not need the appropriate services, they need the most culturally cognizant, issue-focused and best personality match services. I think so many times we get into a pattern of having a meeting and selecting whichever service is available. That does not set up anyone for success. We are asking a family and child to engage with a stranger who is going to be communicating with a group of other professionals, that service provider must be relevant in every aspect to that client. Similarly, resources are given in basic lists to our families. That is not always helpful. My strategy is to have my own knowledge of every placement, provider, therapist, clinician, etc. that may be recommended. And then, if none of those feel right, I go find my own Medicaid providers. Same with resources. I continually update my own lists and ensure they are actually credible and will be a successful phone call for my youth and not just another frustrating rejection. The extra work truly creates an efficiency that the child welfare system sometimes lacks. Be your own expert!

What advice do you have for an attorney that is new to child welfare law?
Collaborate. Every professional in a meeting and hearing has a defined separate role. Every professional should be working toward a common goal. From the initial hearing understand the roles and personalities of the professionals on your case. Ask how you can help in order to ensure the best interest of the child is always at the forefront. Never argue in front of a youth or their family. Discuss recommendations prior to a hearing. Make sure roles are not being duplicated; I believe the downfall in some cases is the overload of services. Constantly ask yourself if you could successfully complete the requirements and plans that we are asking of our youth. Be a realistic role model!

What drives you to continue in this line of work?
Details are the sparkle of life. The topics and issues we discuss are large and heavy in the field. I believe as an advocate it is pertinent to use a strength-based approach at all times and pay attention to the details. Understand your youth’s body language, if they have an IEP make sure it is actually working for them and not just a standard modification or two, work in a positive pro social activity that appeals to their passion to balance all of the rigid work, and always know their favorite snack. Food comforts.

Photo of Peggy Fulks
Peggy Fulks

Peggy Fulks practices as a Guardian ad Litem in the Fourth Judicial District’s Teller County.

Why did you choose to practice child welfare law?
Having an interest in children, students with special needs, and criminal law, I took a juvenile law class which primarily focused on the juvenile delinquency system, but touched on the history of the child welfare and juvenile delinquency systems, truancy, and special education issues. My third year, I was active in the public interest law club, and represented indigent clients through the law school clinic and supervised fellow clinic students. Through those activities, I was aware of a variety of fields where attorneys were needed to represent indigent clients and youth. I received the “best law school clinic student” award, which helped my confidence to the point I began thinking maybe I could actually be a good lawyer. I wanted to be in the courtroom, working directly with clients, and on a variety of matters.

I worked for a different personal injury firm between taking and passing the bar, spoke with numerous sole practitioners about private practice, and spent a significant amount of time researching, reading, and observing a variety of case types and court proceedings. I wanted to focus on the rural county in which I lived, knowing I would have to accept cases in both counties in my judicial district while building my practice. I wanted to open my own practice so I could choose the types of cases and clients I represent. While observing D&N cases, I not only observed the RPCs, GALs, county attorneys, and Judges, but also the parents, caseworkers, court clerks, and the witnesses who testified. I “fell in love” with the child welfare system and knew that is where I belonged.

What has been the most rewarding moment for you while working with children and families in the delinquency system?
When adults or children approach me, sometimes during the case or years later, offering hugs and thanks, and sharing their successes, information about their children, and acknowledging my role in their lives.

Describe a challenge you face doing this work and your strategy to overcome it.
For 28 years my husband and I have lived and worked in a relatively small town in a rural county where we raised our own children. It is sometimes difficult to grocery shop, get gasoline, eat out, attend church, enjoy an activity or holiday event without running into someone who wants to discuss their situation, ask legal questions, give input on a case their neighbor told them about, or provide an update on their current case. A few times people have come to my home, on a Saturday morning, asking for help. I tell every person involved in a case that to protect their privacy and confidentiality I will not approach them in public to discuss their situation, and they should not feel compelled to approach me in public about their case. When we meet by chance, I am just being me, a private person, and I am not at that time the GAL involved in their case. For the most part, I keep my personal life separate from my professional life. If I’m with my family in public and someone approaches me, if I introduce that person as “this is so and so from xyz” they know it is OK to include that person in what we are doing or talking about. But, if someone approaches me and I say, “this is (first name only)”, that indicates to my family that this person is somehow involved in my work, which is confidential. It works!

What advice do you have for an attorney who is new to child welfare law?
Ask the division clerks who they believe are the best GALs/RPCs and seek out their guidance. Then, ask those people who they believe are the best at what they do. You should then have access to the best attorneys in your area!

Be aware when you decide you like someone or you do not like someone on a case. As soon as you make that decision, you are no longer objective. If you like someone, your decisions and recommendations probably reflect that. If you do not like them, your decisions and recommendations probably reflect that as well, and may have a greater impact on that person.

Things to consider:

  • You may be the only consistent person in your child client’s life throughout the case. You should be someone they trust!
  • You are making recommendations/life changing decisions about someone’s life!
  • They are not making recommendations about your family.
  • These cases are not about you. So, do not make it about you.
  • If we, the professionals, do not hold ourselves accountable, how can we hold theparents, or your child clients, accountable for their actions or inaction?
  • Each child is the best “client” you will ever have!

What drives you to continue in this line of work and do you have any advice for the seasoned attorney?
People involved in these cases ask me to continue, including families, department caseworkers, supervisors, school counselors and principals, therapists, DV and substance abuse providers, and Judges. I often receive compliments regarding my work and commitment to the children and families.

Share a litigation strategy or case example when you were successful despite opposition from other parties to the case.
What does the opposition have to support their position? If you have the facts and the law in your favor, and you provide the Judge with the information necessary to rule in your favor, you most likely will be successful.

Inform RPC you support a specific service or provider if they want to request the department pay for something out of the norm, as necessary for successful reunification, reasonable efforts, and in the child’s best interest.

Have a working relationship with the county attorney with whom there is mutual respect and who knows you will argue/pursue/advocate your position in court, and at hearing, if necessary.

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Josi McCauley

Josi practices in the 8th Judicial District in Colorado.

Why did you choose to practice child welfare law?
Having enjoyed a number of juvenile and family law courses in law school, I signed up for the Juvenile Law Clinic my final year of law school. I loved the way that child welfare law intersected with so many different areas of law, and I really enjoyed working with the kids. After that clinic, I knew this was the type of law I wanted to practice.

What has been the most rewarding moment for you while working with children and families in the dependency and neglect system?
There are so many rewards working in this system. Over the years, I’ve had a few kids want to give me something to thank me when they had practically nothing themselves. One of my first clients, a seven-year-old, gave me one of his stuffed animals when his case closed, which was very meaningful. I also have kids who still contact me years after we’ve finished working together just to update me. Hearing from these kids and knowing that they are doing well is tremendously rewarding.

Describe a challenge you face doing this work and your strategies to overcome it.
Sometimes, there are policies and procedures in place within the system that seem to do more harm to the child or family than good when actually put into practice. The best way for me to deal with it is generally not to file a motion, but to get together with a group of people who have the ability to implement different measures and to work as a team to come to a resolution to help the client. I think it is always best to try and come up with a solution outside of the courtroom, if at all possible.

What advice do you have for an attorney that is new to child welfare law?
Don’t be afraid to go to your fellow GALs for advice and support. I’m so lucky to be in a jurisdiction full of amazing GALs who are willing to share motions and research or even just go to lunch so I can get a second opinion or just vent.

What drives you to continue in this line of work?
Seeing a child or family be successful keeps me going. Sometimes these moments can seem few and far between, but witnessing their successes are so invigorating. I should probably be seeking advice, rather than giving any, but I do think it’s important to stay on top of my legal research and case law. As Sheri Danz would say, “check the GRID.”

Photo of Beth Padilla
Beth Padilla

Beth practices in the 6th and 22nd Judicial Districts in Colorado and she is licensed to practice law in both Colorado and New Mexico.

Why did you choose to practice child welfare law?
I studied juvenile and family law in law school and was interested in the subject matter. However, I did not practice child welfare law until I relocated from Denver to Durango, Colorado and opened a firm with my husband, Paul Padilla. I decided to contact OCR on the advice of a mentor and judge. It made sense to me that I might be able to help kids in southwest Colorado because I am bilingual in English and Spanish and have an immigration background.

What has been the most rewarding moment for you while working with children and families in the dependency and neglect system?
One of the first D&N cases I received was a family of three young children. The children were removed from one foster home and placed into another based on allegations of abuse. One of the kids, aged six, was asked by a caseworker who the child would contact if he felt unsafe and he responded that he would call his GAL. I was so excited that he not only remembered me but also would turn to me if he felt unsafe in his new placement.

Describe a challenge you face doing this work and your strategies to overcome it.
I am frequently confronted with the mentality of “this is how we have always done it,” even if it is contrary to the law. I struggle to encourage other parties in my cases to learn the law and follow it appropriately. I am continuing to work through how to overcome this issue, but have found that being incredibly prepared for Court and all interactions with other parties is a great way to start. I carry the GRID and Title 19 with me, I print out statutes and forms before Court, and I try to stay positive.

What advice do you have for an attorney that is new to child welfare law?
Start with the law. Child welfare is confusing and there are so many working parts. For me, step one is looking in Title 19 and step two is checking the GRID. I also think it is important to ask questions of caseworkers, opposing counsel, therapists, teachers, and most importantly, to talk to the kids. Sometimes there are so many adults “working the case” that the kids can feel left out. I have been really inspired by the insight some kids in dependency and neglect cases have about their lives and environments.

What drives you to continue in this line of work?
I am driven to continue with child welfare because I really think I can help the kids in these cases. The kids in dependency and neglect cases need an adult they can talk to and that is looking out for them. I try to be that adult.

Photo of Richard Slosman
Richard Slosman

Richard Slosman practices in the 20th Judicial District as a Guardian ad litem and Respondent Parent Counsel.

Why did you choose to practice child welfare law?
In the 1990s I worked as a psychotherapist for families and children involved with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.  It was work that developed from a passion in wanting to help people make positive changes in their lives. By the late 90s, I recognized that, as much as I enjoyed addressing the mental health issues of my clients, a guardian ad litem was in a much more potent role to promote lasting positive changes both for clients and also within these systems themselves. That is why I decided on entering law school.

What has been the most rewarding moment for you while working with children and families in the D&N system?
If I may take a bit of license with what is meant by a moment, let me say that the most rewarding experience has been being part of the huge and valuable transformations that have been made in this field over the last couple of decades. Granted, I was on the sidelines for much of it, yelling my disgust like a rabid spectator, but at times I got my hands dirty too. There is so much good that has happened.  Much better adherence to legal procedures for protecting rights. Much better understanding of the needs of people and how to use systems to effectuate change.  Much better appreciation of the value of helping people make changes for themselves and creating better coordinated services that utilize clients’ own capacity for change….  A particular area important to me has been the recognition of the deleterious effects of emotional trauma and the benefit of using services to create healthy attachment relationships to heal them.  

OCR has been essential in facilitating these and other positive changes. It has been an honor to have contracted with OCR.  

Alright, I’ll give some discrete moments but I can’t give just one. The youth who was reunited with his father after nine years with the help of the legal system; the mother who, when faced with losing her children, finally came through her substance abuse addictions to work on her own childhood trauma; the child who, with support, was able to stand up to her mother’s abusive behaviors and develop new healthy parenting relationships.  It has been a true joy to be part of these and other significant transformations in people’s lives.

Describe a challenge you face doing this work and your strategies to overcome it.
There are so many challenges but one that I would like to address is the seeming vagueness of some of the statutes dictating dependency and neglect law. It took me some years to appreciate and even more to learn the procedures that make this area of law definite and effective.  For example, “Best Interest” and “Reasonable Efforts” can sometimes be ambiguous concepts in the law, but learning early on in a case what needs to happen to make a needed change and framing it in terms of services in a treatment plan that is “reasonably calculated” to reunify a child can have a positive lasting impact on these families.

What advice do you have for an attorney that is new to child welfare law?
Listen to your heart, learn the rules (all of them) and follow both.

What drives you to continue in this line of work and do you have any advice for a seasoned attorney?
My advice is to take care of yourself. For me, the drive has never been an issue because there is such an enjoyable—sometimes addictive—quality to working with people, especially children, involved in the child welfare system. This intense work, though, takes a toll. So, it has been essential for me to learn good skills for self-care, healthy boundaries, relaxing vacations….

Share a litigation strategy or case when you were successful despite opposition from other parties to the case.
An unsuccessful contest to a change of venue request by DHS comes to mind.  I lost both at the trial level and on appeal (turns out change of venue is not seen as a final order, crazy as it seems). Though I lost, in some very important ways I achieved what my child-client needed.

The change of venue request was made after three years when DHS suddenly realized the child’s family resided 1½ miles into a different county. Change of venue after three years would have been difficult for the child at any point, as she struggles seriously with disorganized emotional attachment capacities. She needs consistency in relationships more so than the average person her age.  Change of venue meant change of providers, DHS personnel, and even a judge—all of whom provided her a feeling of emotional security. But change of venue when it was filed was particularly onerous as it came at a time when she was finally beginning to make some progress in therapy. It would have stomped out the small but meaningful steps she was beginning to take. The six months it took the litigation to transpire allowed her to utilize therapy successfully, which would have been impossible had the rug been pulled from under her by changing services and relationships too soon.  This was a perfect example to me of why I went to law school.  As a psychotherapist, I would have felt overwhelmed by the change of venue request when it was made. As a GAL, I could do something beneficial about it.

Photo of Ruth Snyder
Ruth Snyder

Ruth practices in the El Paso County Office of the Guardian ad Litem in Colorado Springs.

Why did you choose to practice child welfare law?
I was a divorce attorney and as part of my practice I was a private GAL. I really enjoyed having the GAL role and having my focus be the best interests of the child. When the OGAL opened up, I jumped at the chance to be a GAL full-time. I have no regrets about that decision.

What has been the most rewarding moment for you while working with children and families in the dependency and neglect system?
I have enjoyed meeting with all of the children and seeing them through to permanency, whether it was return home, permanent placement with a relative, adoption by a non-relative or emancipation.

Describe a challenge you face doing this work and your strategies to overcome it.
I would say one of the biggest challenges is when you know what is best for a child, but the system doesn’t have the appropriate services, whether it is therapeutic foster homes, foster homes for teen mothers and their babies, or appropriate therapy covered by Medicaid or DHS. I struggle with finding appropriate placements and therapies in some cases, and I try to find options in the community.

What advice do you have for an attorney who is new to child welfare law?
If you’re not in an office, find a mentor who has been doing this work for a while and consult with that person regularly.

What drives you to continue in this line of work and do you have any advice for a seasoned attorney?
I continue to be inspired by my clients and I continue to enjoy working with youth. As far as advice for the seasoned attorney doing this work, self-care is very important so that you don’t get burnt out.

Litigation Spotlight
I had a case where the developmentally delayed parents were not getting the services recommended by their initial assessments – this included IQ testing, neuro-cognitive evaluations, medical evaluations, and so on. The baby was placed in foster care since being discharged from the hospital and the case was well into the 6th month without IQ and neuro-cognitive testing.

We needed to determine if the parents qualified for The Resource Exchange and host homes, but without the correct assessments the case was stalled. This was continually brought up at staffings and eventually DHS had a triage meeting to discuss the services. When I brought this up to the Judge in month 7, she ordered the testing and evaluations and set the case for a lack of reasonable efforts hearing. Both parents had respondent counsel and their own GALs, but they did not prosecute the lack of reasonable efforts hearing.

I requested a court ordered deadline for the DHS discovery documents, and subpoenaed the records from the agency responsible for setting up services. This agency refused to obey the subpoena, and I had to get a specific court order for the records. With the DHS and agency records I was able to come up with a timeline for services recommended, when referrals went out, and when the providers actually contacted the parents to set up the services. This time line was my first exhibit at trial.

In the subpoenaed records I found a report from the triage meeting which recommended even further delay of services. Along with the other documents I received from DHS and the agency, I was able to show the delay in services came from DHS. The county disagreed with this position, and objected strongly to all my questioning of their witnesses. The Respondent Counsel and GALs for the Respondents agreed with the lack of reasonable efforts and at the hearing cross-examined my witnesses and argued in support of the finding.

The Court found a lack of reasonable efforts which extended the EPP guidelines. We are now set for a termination hearing on my motion and I feel confident that the parents were given an appropriate treatment plan with the recommended evaluations and offered services.

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