Here are some quotes that stick with me from Prof. Marty Guggenheim’s plenary address to the 4th ABA Parent Attorney Conference:

  • “We are the world’s leader in destroying families”
  • “Removing a child from his family is an act of extreme violence”
  • “We create 60,000 legal orphans per year”
  • “Only a cruel country would do this”

Prof. Guggenheim’s speech opened the conference, and was followed by Dr. William Bell of Casey Family Programs, who continued in the same vein:

  • “We cannot possibly comprehend what it means to have a child forcibly removed from your custody.”
  • “There is no greater deprivation of physical liberty for parent or child than to restrict or sever the bond between them.”

I have previously written about the anonymous toil of representing parents who have had children removed or are at risk of having children removed. For two days, we were not anonymous. We held center stage and several hundred of us converged on the Omni Shoreham Hotel in the Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington D.C. to discuss new innovations in representing parents.

It starts with valuing parents and the family relationship. In some ways, representing parents is an entirely different branch of law from that typically performed by public defenders. The procedure is foreign and convoluted; the stakes are family integrity rather than incarceration; and the standard of proof is lesser. In other ways, representing parents whose children or in foster or are at risk of being placed in foster care is the same kind of work that every public defender does every day. Dr. Bell discussed the importance of moving the affected voices (the parents and the children) to the center of the conversation and empowering them to stand for themselves. Lynda Coates of Communication Across Barriers discussed the importance of respecting your impoverished clients, giving them a voice, and valuing their input about their own lives. That’s nothing other than client-centeredness, as practiced by skilled public defenders everywhere in every type of practice.

The hardest job of a parent attorney is to shift the conversation away from the parent’s mistakes or shortcomings and towards the parent’s strengths. My training at law school taught me, inadvertently, to see clients as a bundle of rights and the case as a set of facts operating against that bundle of rights. This was called “thinking like a lawyer”, and it fit with my prior life and career as an engineer, a career which values a straight-ahead and analytical approach to problem solving. I wasn’t in practice long before I realized that this approach, while useful in the academic setting was wholly unsatisfying in the practice of representing real people in court. Our clients are not bundles of rights but instead are complete human beings with hopes, fears, strengths, weaknesses, and most importantly in this context, they have children who they deeply love and who deeply love them. (And yes, they also have rights).

I would estimate that roughly half of the conference focused on making legal arguments on behalf of clients backed up by law and precedent, but the other half focused on the human aspect of our cases, in all its messy and confusing glory. We talked about ways to change the conversation in the courtroom and in the child welfare office away from our client’s supposed mistakes and towards their strengths; away from the unfriendly territory of compliance and middle class values, and towards the more friendly ground of safety and freedom. We learned that we should push to avoid having our clients defined by their shortcomings which need to be fixed but rather to define them by their strengths and then expand on those strengths.

Part of this human element includes the twin pillars of public defense: poverty and race. Nationwide, the child welfare system in overwhelmingly poor and in many places is overwhelmingly composed of persons of color, whether African-American, Latino, or Native American. Around the country, the system is funded in large part by the federal government, which perversely incentivizes adoptions rather than the preservation of families. In courts around the country, families are broken up by ex parte orders with no discernible safety threat to the children. This is justified based on “instability” or “noncompliance” or the nebulous and omnipresent “risk”.

After the family is ripped apart, parents are forced to run from pillar to post to comply with cumbersome case plans dictated by an often undertrained, overworked, and biased bureaucracy. One presenter, a former CPS case worker in California talked of being forced to exaggerate allegations and omit positive facts, and even to lie under oath, in order to justify the actions of the Department in breaking up a family, all because the Department spoke with “one voice”, denying compassionate professionals who work most closely with families their own voice. She spoke of social worker colleagues, themselves victims of childhood trauma, who found the parents’ actions triggering, and so were in the wrong profession entirely, to the detriment of the families they were supposed to be helping. She spoke of an uncaring CPS bureaucracy that discouraged compassion and led to the destruction of families rather than to the strengthening of families, anathema to her career aspirations, and so she switched sides and starting working for public defenders instead. She spoke of harnessing the skills and training of social workers and parent mentors to improve outcomes for families. Parent representatives around the country have found that including social workers and parent mentors in the practice saves the state money on foster care. Foster care is the financial equivalent of prison in that it is an outsized state expense and almost any program that reduces its use will save the state money.

Here in Louisiana, we are trying to raise the standards of practice in an especially difficult financial time, and the logical step is to try to bring this new skill set into our practice for the good of the state and for the good of our clients. These are models of representation that are far beyond what Louisiana is currently able to provide. Louisiana has a group of skilled and dedicated advocates representing parents but we lack the resources to hire social workers or to incorporate parent mentors and mental health professionals into our model of representation.  It will be a long and hard slog to build that capacity, but spending a few days with like-minded and talented advocates renewed our dedication to improving representation in Louisiana.

In one of the workshops I attended, titled “Building Resiliency and Managing the Stress of Our Work”, presenters Michele Cortese and Dr. Mark Evces talked about the importance of taking care of yourself so that you can take care of your clients. Representing parents is an especially stressful and emotionally draining line of work. One of the things Michele and Dr. Evces discussed is the importance of staying in contact with the meaning of your work, as a way to restore your mental energy. As it happens, the entire conference was a two-day exercise in staying in contact with the meaning of helping parents navigate the child welfare system, a profoundly re-energizing process that reminded me and other people of just how important our work is, how much it matters to families, and how important this practice is within the larger public defense practice. I returned to Louisiana reinvigorated to explore building our parent representation system.
I’ll keep you informed about our progress.