Lessons Learned Through Child Welfare Litigation
By Alet A. Brown – January 9, 2012
We all have our idea of demons. If asked, we can visualize and describe them without hesitation. When I entered the field of child advocacy, I had one demon in mind—a demon I crafted after years of working with underprivileged youth and listening to their heartbreaking tales of trauma at home: the parent. It was my mission—no, my destiny—to protect innocent children from their abusive parents. I would be to child advocacy what Batman was to Gotham City, and there would never be a shortage of villains. Yet, when I finally experienced child advocacy, something unexpected happened. I found myself humanizing the people I was so certain were at the root of the problem. My perspective of the field was slowly shifting, and my outlook on the lives of these children and their families was changing along with it. I was transforming from an eager student attorney to a budding child advocate, and I was surprised that I could credit such growth to one of the villains in my own Gotham City.
Transitioning into the field of child advocacy is not child’s play—no pun intended—especially for an inexperienced law student. It requires a completely new way of thinking and the realization that a child advocate’s job is to be the voice of the child. In my jurisdiction, children in dependency cases are entitled to attorneys, not guardians ad litem. The clinic operates on the presumption that children age seven and over are entitled to expressed-wishes advocacy. I had no idea that existed or what it would entail. Naturally, as expected, the field involves advocacy on behalf of the child. Such advocacy, however, is not limited to the technical skills taught in law school. While there are an extensive discovery process, motion practice, interviews, oral advocacy, and other staples of litigation, the most critical component is that a child’s attorney is able to use his or her technical skills to speak on behalf of the child, not for the child. As a student attorney preparing to work in a child advocacy clinic, I expected child welfare litigators to speak for the children. I thought that I would read a case file, meet a child, and then use the technical skills I have learned to convey to the court what I thought should happen to the child. I never anticipated that my legal work would be guided by the wishes of the child, nor did I anticipate that advocating on behalf of one child would lead to me meeting a parent that would have such a profound effect on me.
Guided by my well-intentioned naïveté, I eagerly started my work in the child advocacy clinic. I was shocked to discover that many of my expectations of child welfare litigation differed so much from the reality of the field. An expectation that did mirror reality, however, was that I would have no trouble growing close to the children. When I met my first clients, a three-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy, I fell in love. With big, bright eyes full of innocence, they stole my heart the minute I met them. It was the same with all the clients assigned to my three-student team during my time in the clinic, and with each new client, I promised myself I would do everything I could for them. I spent countless hours reading intake reports and discovery, learning about the children and the events that brought them into the system. I was wholly dedicated to doing everything I could for them, and with that dedication came the ease with which I could vilify my clients’ parents.
The same passion that inspires a desire to protect children can also encourage an incredible amount of judgment of their parents. It certainly did not help that I was already convinced that their parents were monsters before my foot was even in the door. Going through case files and listening to the stories from other student attorneys, I found myself thinking the worst of the parents I read about. I felt no sympathy for them or what they might be going through. How could you neglect, abuse, or abandon an innocent child, a defenseless individual who wants nothing more than to be loved by the people who brought them into this world? And why would I advocate for the return of a child to such a home? I was consumed by my one-sided thought process and was even a little proud that I was vocalizing what I was certain so many people were thinking. It was an experience with one of my clients’ parents, however, that opened my eyes to the true consequences of being so judgmental.
I will call my client Loretta. Loretta was a precocious 14-year-old girl, full of energy and life. She had a smile that can light up a room and a knowing twinkle in her eye that made me want to work doubly hard for her. Every visit with her was entertaining, and my team and I usually left with tears in our eyes from our laughter. It is always amazing to see so much tenacity in a child with such a heartbreaking story. My team picked up Loretta’s case mid-stream, as the case started during the previous semester. Loretta’s mother, a chronic drug abuser whose rights to three of her five children had been terminated years earlier, had abandoned Loretta when she was a baby. Loretta was left in the care of an aunt who obtained custody of her and raised her as a single caretaker. Over the years, multiple reports from numerous sources were made to child welfare about potential neglect in the home. The report that finally brought the family to court was made by police officers who discovered Loretta covered with bruises on her face and body from her aunt’s beatings. Both Loretta and her aunt said the bruises were the result of her aunt having disciplined her with a belt. Loretta was removed and placed into foster care. Curiously, the file also indicated that Loretta’s mother then somehow reappeared, and, incredibly, Loretta had been placed with her. Even more curious was that last semester’s students were the ones who advocated for Loretta to be released to her mother.
Reviewing the case file, I wondered what child welfare and the previous student team were thinking. Still not fully appreciating the advocacy model I was working under and not yet having interviewed our client, I was fixated on my own reactions. Loretta’s mother had lost multiple children to the system, many of them through pure abandonment. I shook my head as I went through the case file, angry that such a person would continue to be blessed with children. My anger only increased after my first conversation with her. I called her to set up a time for the team to visit with Loretta and she was loud, abrasive, and veryforward. It was a stark contrast to the submissive, cooperative parents I had come to know in my first case. During a supervision meeting with my professors, I told them exactly what I thought of her: She was aggressive and scary. “She yelled at me,” I whined. One of my professors looked at me with a knowing eye and told me she was not aggressive or scary. In fact, she was a nice woman. I found it hard to believe. I even thought my professor was confused about which parent I was referring to. She could not possibly be talking about the same woman who practically climbed through the phone and down my throat just a few minutes earlier. “Get to know her,” my professor said, her tone encouraging. I have never gotten better advice.
I went back to the case file. Based on the last student team’s advocacy to return Loretta to her mother, the attorney for Loretta’s mother had given us permission to meet with her. I took some time to prepare for the meeting by focusing on Loretta’s mother’s background. I read through all the information about her in the file, including the medical records the previous student team had received, and a picture started slowly to emerge. At first, I felt as if I was intruding on something sacred and private. Notes from her therapists, her medical information—it was all too much! But I kept reading until I came across some heartbreaking information. I finally understood how Loretta’s mother came to lose her first child to the system. She had been sexually abused herself by a relative while she was still a young child, and was pregnant before seventh grade as a result. A life of foster care turmoil followed, and she fell into the arms of a terrible drug habit. Through it all, she continued to give birth to children, but her own lack of self-worth and love left her incapable of loving anyone else. She continued to lose her children to the system until the day she somehow found the strength to decide to leave her destructive past behind. She accepted the help of numerous professionals who assisted her with sobriety, social skills, employment, housing, and other necessary aspects of independent living, and she eventually even managed to get two of her children back, including her youngest daughter, Loretta. She was insistent on making herself a better person so that she could be a good mother to her children.
I felt like the worst person in the world. I knew nothing about this woman, yet I felt entitled enough as her child’s attorney to judge her and make predictions about what my client should want, not what she did want. I dismissed her before I even got the opportunity to know her. In many ways, I failed my client from the outset. I was so caught up in what I thought should happen to Loretta that I failed to consider the importance of what she wanted. Even worse, I made snap judgments without fully learning about the people who would be most directly affected by them: the child and her mother. This was the home that the child would come to love and in which she would thrive, and she was adamant about staying there. Rather than taking a moment to try to figure out why that was, I skipped that critical step and went straight to passing judgment and making unwarranted, unnecessary, and ultimately incorrect assumptions. When we finally scheduled time to meet the family, I immediately volunteered to interview Loretta’s mother. Somewhere within me I felt like it would be a moment of redemption, an opportunity for me to start fresh and really get to understand her. That was three months ago, and no one else on my team had an opportunity to interview her after that.
Listening to this woman speak with such eloquence and share stories that resonated so much with me, I refused to turn down the opportunity to speak with her again. Every conversation was a learning experience, and I still marvel at the strength she found to move past a life of such hardship. We had many conversations, during which I sometimes found myself looking away from her as we sat outside on the steps of her modest home, hoping she could not see just how much her story affected me. She was completely open and may be the most straightforward person I have ever met. She was always willing to admit that while she was new to actually parenting, she desperately wanted to be a good mother. She was determined to make something of herself, not because it would make her happy, but because it would mean she could be part of her children’s lives. I was moved.
After hearing her story and recognizing just how far she had come, I realized that I had been very wrong about her. She was not abrasive; she had been hurt and refused to be hurt again. She was not mean; she was protective of herself and her family. Like a lioness that has lost some of her cubs, she was fiercely protective of the children she does have with her. She taught me things about child welfare litigation that I never expected to learn, and, in the process, she taught me an incredible amount about myself. From this woman with this sad and dark past, I found a way to humanize the individuals I once vilified.
It is far too easy to immediately dismiss abusive or neglectful parents as inadequate. In the beginning of my time with the clinic, I spent a lot of time judging them instead of trying to understand why my clients loved and needed them. Every person has a story, and many times that story is the key to understanding exactly why a case is sitting in your lap. Even more important is that the whole purpose of child welfare litigators is to be certain that the child’s position does not go unheard. This position is not dictated by the attorney’s view of a child’s mother, but by the child’s perspective. My experience with Loretta’s mother is a constant reminder of that. I now have a different eye when looking at all cases—especially child welfare cases—and I can thank Loretta’s mother for making me a better child advocate in that respect.
My experience with the clinic has shown me that child welfare litigation is not easy, but the difficulty it presented for me was what makes it such a special subset of legal advocacy. With each new client, it is so easy to fall into the trap of judgment. You can never understand the true value of your work, however, until you set aside your judgments and work toward the best possible representation of the child’s position. In the process, you will meet the “villains” who caused so much turmoil in the first place, and you may—though not always—discover there was no villainy, just life and its many twists and turns. It is in the midst of those twists and turns that unexpected moments of enlightenment present themselves. I managed to find my own moment of enlightenment, and it was one of the most valuable lessons I have learned in law school—a lesson taught not in a classroom with a casebook but by a disabled recovering drug addict who also happens to be quite an inspiration. I owe a great deal to Loretta’s mom.
Keywords: litigation, children’s rights, child advocacy, child welfare
Alet A. Brown is a third-year law student at St. John’s University School of Law.