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.