Hearings: More Money for Legal Counsel Won’t Fix Broken Court Processes

A recent policy change at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services now allows for child welfare systems to draw federal funds to help pay for the legal counsel of all children and birth parents involved in the child welfare systems. I do believe that this is a great idea, however I am skeptical about whether this bill will be as transformative as some in the field expect. I am sharing my experience with the hope that it will illustrate how simply providing children and birth parents with lawyers may not make the impact many are anticipating.

I went into care as a teenager and was immediately assigned a lawyer and a child advocacy specialist — the person who met with me prior to court so that the attorney had some idea of what I wanted to happen. There were definitely perks to having my own lawyer. For example, I never wanted to go to court because honestly I wanted to be in school, pretending that I didn’t have court and that I wasn’t a “foster child,” so my attorney had my appearances waived … for six years.

Although I appreciate them allowing me to have a say in my normalcy, it’s unacceptable that the new judge never mandated my appearance, particularly when my subsidized guardianship wasn’t going through. This meant that I aged out after seven years in foster care, despite living with a willing and able relative. This means I never achieved true “permanency.” Worse, I never realized my guardianship didn’t go through. Had I known that, I would have advocated for more independent living resources that are only available to kids currently in foster care.

My birth parents were also assigned two separate parent attorneys (“parent advocates”), but truthfully I don’t remember much about them. During my professional experience working in child welfare, I can pretty easily ascertain what probably happened— their attorneys also came to court (sometimes), and (sometimes) would disagree with the things the agency asserted. But in my experience, mostly they don’t say anything, because they have never actually spoken with their clients prior to court.

One issue with having child welfare contracted attorneys is that they start to experience the same things social workers have been experiencing for years — high caseloads, inadequate pay, long hours, unrealistic paperwork expectations in an antiquated system. It all simply becomes too unmanageable in order to be able to effectively do your job, and to really represent who you’re supposed to be representing.

Furthermore, the reality is that having a great lawyer means nothing if there isn’t a judge willing to listen and consider the things that the lawyer is bringing up.

When I went into care and subsequently switched a placement, both times I was placed into group home shelters. I didn’t understand, and I thought they were places where “bad kids” go. Both times, I decided to write a letter to the judge who oversaw my case at the time. Because the family I was asking to go to had an adult with DUIs on their record, my lawyers did not support that placement, and so it was just my words.

I remember the judge explaining that group homes weren’t for “bad kids,” and that she felt nervous to place me with my family member. I remember begging her, especially during my second shelter placement, and she thankfully did end up overriding the charges and allowed me to be placed with my family.

I saw her maybe once or twice for additional hearings, and then my case was moved to a regional court, where aside from my guardianship falling through, no major changes were made. My most important court hearings, which determined my entire adolescent life, occurred with that judge who I wrote letters to; her importance cannot be understated.

About four years after I had aged out of foster care, I attended a training that same judge was attending. At one point I decided to advocate for changes in the courtroom, so I disclosed my name and identified myself as an alumnus of the system. In the same day after that occurrence, I rode in an elevator with my placement hearing judge.

She didn’t recognize me.

While I know judges oversee hundreds of thousands of cases during their tenure, it still strikes me that this person who had full authority over my life had no awareness that she decided my life, partly my future, yet she had no idea who I was (for the record, my child attorney did recognize me at the same training).

My point is that having more legal support for children and parents is a great idea. I just don’t think it’s enough. We need to have adequate funding, training, and a true ideological shift in the system. Without those things and more, the child and parent attorneys may just be another team member who attends court.

The writer aged out of Pennsylvania’s foster care system, and is now working in child welfare services in the state. She requested anonymity because she now works with several of the judges and attorneys described in this entry.

This story is a part of a Chronicle series called “Hearings,” where our reporters and guest contributors provide an inside look at how child welfare courts function.

In about half the states in the country, child welfare proceedings are closed to the public and media – despite the fact that they are places where children enter foster care; where families are ripped apart, sometimes put back together and otherwise – through adoption – made anew.

If you are a judge, parent, foster youth, attorney or an advocate for families … we want to hear from you. Share a story from a recent dependency court experience that you believe speaks to a problem or a success story.

Anonymity may be granted depending on the nature of your contribution. Our intent with this – and all Chronicle projects – is to ethically cover the child welfare system, which often means protecting the names and identities of children and families caught up in it.

To contribute to “Hearings,” complete this form (or e-mail info@chronicleofsocialchange.org). Please be sure to include your name, location and role in a child welfare case.

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