Hearings: In Child Welfare Court, Customer Service is Key

The Alfred J. McCourtney Juvenile Justice Center in Los Angeles County. Photo: Jeremy Loudenback

As a social worker with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), I face a lot of situations that are disheartening and tough to deal with. But few moments in my career have left me more disillusioned than a recent experience at the Los Angeles County courthouse in Lancaster.

The case I was working on involved a mother — let’s call her Jenna — who was the victim of domestic violence. Jenna had to leave her home with her child if she wanted to prevent the child from being placed into foster care. She complied and fled to her mom’s house, but soon after Jenna arrived at her mother’s house, she was left homeless when her mom was evicted.

In meeting with Jenna ahead of her disposition hearing — an important step in a child welfare case, where decisions are made about which allegations of abuse or neglect will stick — I learned that she didn’t have a way to get to the courthouse in Lancaster, more than 100 miles away from where she was temporarily crashing with relatives in another county.

It was crucial for her to be at this hearing. This was her only chance to advocate for herself to have her case closed or ask the court for another way to participate in future hearings without having to travel into L.A. DCFS was recommending that her case be closed; Jenna had done what she needed to do to keep her child safe, but it had left her homeless. She had places to stay if she could move to Las Vegas or Texas, and the only thing keeping her in California was this open court case.

The journey to court from where Jenna was staying could have taken more than eight hours on public transportation. With court starting at 8:30 a.m., that was clearly impossible, so I got my supervisor to approve some overtime and picked her up myself. I left L.A. at 4:30 a.m. to get her there on time, but I underestimated traffic and by 8 a.m., I realized we were going to be late.

That’s when the problems started. I asked my DCFS supervisor to call the court and let them know we were running late. When my supervisor called the court, she was stunned at how rude the court officer in the courtroom had been to her. I tried calling myself, explaining that it wasn’t my client’s fault and that she was making her best faith effort to be there. The court officer hung up on me.

By this point, still en route to court, I’d learned that they were going to postpone the case that day. There had been some problems with paperwork, but I was still determined to get my client to court. If I couldn’t get the case closed, I at least wanted to petition the judge to allow Jenna to appear telephonically next time to make it easier for her to see the case through.

When we arrived at around 9:30 a.m., the case hadn’t been called yet. Though we wouldn’t have the scheduled hearing that day, they had to call up the case anyway to announce the postponement on record and handle some other logistical things. I went to check in with the court officer — the same one who had hung up on me — and she completely dismissed me. I tried to check in with anther court officer, but she wouldn’t help me because I wasn’t assigned to her.

When the judge called the case, she and all of the attorneys on the case conceded that Jenna and her child weren’t there, that they were still en route. I spoke up to let her know that they were in fact there with me, and the judge admonished for speaking out of turn and ordered my counsel to “Control your client!”

It was honestly appalling the way everyone was treating each other in that courtroom. Jenna’s attorney was raising her voice to the judge and rolling her eyes at me when I tried to clarify that the clients were in fact present, and on the case prior to mine, the judge was yelling at attorneys for both the minor and parent.

The judge had allowed an extremely hostile environment to take hold. I’ve spent a lot of time in courtrooms, and I’ve never seen anything like this. I left fully convinced that they just don’t care about children and families — if they did, they wouldn’t treat them like this.

When we left the courtroom, Jenna’s counsel from Los Angeles Dependency Lawyers went to check in with the client. Mind you, neither mother’s counsel nor the child’s lawyer from Children’s Law Center had taken a moment to speak with them before the case was called, even though there was time after we got there. Jenna and I asked the lawyer for transportation assistance to get to the follow-up court date because I was going to be out of town that day.

Her lawyer actually mocked us for that request, saying, “What do you want, a helicopter?”

I asked my county counsel for options to help us explore other ways Jenna could appear, and he didn’t have any information for us. The very next day, though, he had all the answers, but none of them helped because all of them required in-person approval from the judge.

Sometimes it means the world to these families if they can get very small changes made in their cases during hearings. But the behavior of the judge, court officers and attorneys involved eliminated Jenna’s single opportunity to ask the judge for any help. There were solutions that were available, solutions that could have been discussed when we were in front of the judge, but they could not be explored because people were too distracted by disrespecting each other to listen to what the family needed.

I understand that caseloads are high and that courts are busy, but we’re dealing with the lives of children and families. Every one of us needs to behave with courtesy and provide excellent customer service at all times for the sake of the families.

Customer service may not be a concept that naturally comes to mind when we think about the legal system, but people are suffering when they come into these courtrooms; they don’t need to be treated like shit. When we add insult to injury with rough treatment of these folks, we’re almost asking them to give up.

Despite a lot of frustration, this story has a happy ending for Jenna. At the next hearing a week later, the court took DCFS’s recommendation to close the case, which finally allowed Jenna to move to a place where she has a stable home option.

But Jenna’s outcome doesn’t erase the systemic issues we faced in court that day. You can work your ass off and still fail. That’s why people burn out — you can’t keep people in environments like that, where I do everything I can for the child and family I’m serving, and I still can’t get them a solution.

I’ve experienced the child welfare system myself, so I’ve been on the other side of this. That’s why I work so hard for each and every one of my clients — I understand a little bit of what they’re going through. But I don’t know if I can continue to believe in the system when outcomes aren’t getting better and people aren’t trying.

The co-author of this, who shared their story with Sara Tiano, requested anonymity. This person is a social worker for the Los Angeles Department of Child and Family Services. 

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Sara Tiano
About Sara Tiano 88 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change