Beyond Counsel: What Lawyers Can Mean to Parents

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments in Brackeen v. Zinke in March.

I opened my inbox to find an email titled, “I can’t take this life anymore.” My heart sank.

These were the words of a former client, a young adult who had aged out of foster care after living in more than 10 placements. Now she had four children, was on the verge of being evicted, was struggling to find a job because she didn’t have child care, or really any other form of support. She felt alone in the world and was in crisis.

Hundreds of miles away, I felt powerless to help. So I didn’t respond right away. The email sat unanswered in my inbox for hours.

Those of us who work with struggling families experience this feeling often. Our clients have overwhelming needs. They lack housing and money. They can’t buy food for their children. They don’t have access to a doctor. They lack community. So they turn to us – their lawyers – for answers to this cruel world that has left them behind. They look for someone to show them how to win despite the poor hand they’ve been dealt in life.

We struggle to respond. What should we say when we can’t provide them with things they deserve – basic resources that every human deserves? We’d love to find them a house or a job. Or someone to watch their children. But often we can’t. Because those things aren’t easily attainable in this world when you don’t have money.

I struggle with these questions all the time. But here’s how I move forward: We help our clients by simply being in kinship with them, showing them compassion and in doing so, providing them with a glimmer of hope. We do this by noticing and acknowledging their pain. By listening. By expressing our solidarity with them. And by reminding them that though they’ve been left behind, they too are equals, fully deserving of the dignity that all people possess.

When we remind people that they matter, that, in and of itself, can instill a powerful sense of hope in their lives. Consider these words from another client, who spent hours working with my law students on an appeal after her parental rights had been terminated:

“Thank you for helping me share my Truth. You have worked hard towards the attainment of Justice in this world. It was not a small task, even if it is only one small story! It is everything to me today.”

I have no idea whether we will prevail in her case. But, instilling hope in a client who felt like she was on the outside is success, regardless of how the case is decided.

So after spending a few hours ruminating about how to respond to my client’s email, I simply wrote: “I’m sorry you are going through this. Keep your head up. You ARE going to get back on the feet, and I’m here to help. Call or email anytime.” Then I waited for her response.

A few minutes later, she wrote, “OK great! Thanks for being supportive and an ear to listen!”

I have no idea how her story will end. But here’s what I do know – that we must do everything we can to remind those with whom we work that they matter. We can do that with our words, and through our actions. And that this task – providing compassion and hope to families – is as important as any motion I might file or any question I might ask in a courtroom.

Vivek Sankaran
is the director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. Follow him on Twitter at @vivekssankaran.

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