Jumping Through Hoops

A while back, I was at a family team meeting (“FTM”), and a mom had a meltdown because she thought she was going to be able to have overnights soon with her son. Keep in mind that DHS never gives an unqualified promise that this will happen; it’s usually couched in terms of, “If things continue to go well…” But of course, parents don’t hear that part. Or else their definition of “things going well” differs from DHS’ definition. Unfortunately, they often tell their kids that something is going to happen, and then when it doesn’t, it looks like another broken promise. That’s why I always caution my parents to not make those kinds of promises. There are too many variables to guarantee it.

In this case, there were some behavioral issues in the child that were showing up at school after increased visits with mom. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that mom is doing anything wrong. Our little people have trouble managing their emotions sometimes, whether good or bad, and this will often show up in undesirable behavior. In those situations, we usually want to slow down the process a bit to give them time to adjust and adapt. This isn’t about the parent—it’s about the child, which is, of course, our primary concern.

But that was not mom’s perspective. She felt like she had (in her words), “jumped through all the hoops” that DHS had required, and still wasn’t getting overnight visits. DHS tried to explain that this wasn’t a reward/punishment thing, but mom was clearly not hearing that—or at least not believing it.

The thing is, both of them were right.

I tell my parents at the beginning of a case that they have the greatest influence over the outcome of the case. If they do everything that DHS and the court are asking them to do, there is usually no reason why they shouldn’t get their kids back. At its most basic, then, we are telling parents that if you do X, you will be “rewarded” with Y (the return of your children). If you don’t do X, you will be “punished” by having your parental rights terminated. But that’s not exactly right.

The reason we ask parents to do certain things is not to simply make them “jump through hoops” to earn back their children. It’s to help them become healthy so their children can be safely returned to them. We need to do a much better job at explaining whythey are being asked to do these things, because their understanding of the “why” can fundamentally change how they approach the “what.”

If you ask them why they are being asked to do certain things, and their response is, “Because DHS told me to,” then you know they have the wrong “why.” This response indicates an external motivation, rather than an internal inspiration.

Craig Groeschel describes the difference between motivation and inspiration this way: Motivation suggests that (in this case) DHS is pushing parents to do something they don’t want to do. Inspiration, on the other hand, is a pull towards a desirable result that is internally driven. External motivation is far less sustainable over the long term than internal inspiration.

If parents are doing something “because DHS told [them] to do it,” then as soon as the case closes and DHS is out of the picture, they will stop doing whatever “it” is (e.g., therapy, substance use after care, etc.). They run the risk of falling back into old habits, which can sometimes result in another removal.

If parents are doing something because they want to get (and remain) healthy and successfully parent their kids, they will keep doing what they know helps them get and stay healthy, even when DHS is no longer in the picture.

Mom’s lament that she was jumping through hoops but never getting overnight visits suggests she is doing things from the “external motivation” side of things. She needs to rethink the “why” of what she is doing from a different perspective so she can focus on taking actions that are best for the child, rather than just checking things off a list.

Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s never appropriate to challenge DHS “foot-dragging.” They are overworked and often over cautious. But I always try to challenge it in the context of what’s best for the family. In other words, to say, “You have asked my client to do X, Y, and Z, and he’s done all three of those things successfully, which demonstrates that he is able to safely parent his child and should get increased visits.”This acknowledges the “hoops,” but within the context of the larger goal of the child’s safety and best interests.

If you are an attorney or a DHS worker, make sure the parents know and understand the “why” behind what you are asking them to do. While it may be self-evident to you, it may notbe to the parent who views DHS as the adversary who has taken his or her child.

Transitioning out of DHS/Court Involvement

Oftentimes, parents can’t wait to have DHS (and everyone else associated with their DHS/Court Involvement) out of their life—and understandably so. It’s months, if not years, of having people scrutinizing your life, your choices, and your relationships. But sometimes, when all that support, and yes, all that scrutiny, suddenly goes away, parents struggle. And sometimes relapse.

Recently, a parent in our state did just that—and died, a mere week after the child was returned and the case closed. It was heartbreaking for the family and the professionals working with that family. It’s always a good day when you get to reunify children with their parents. But when they relapse and die shortly thereafter…

Here are some thoughts I have about safely transitioning out of DHS/Court-Involvement:

  1. If you were doing therapy during your court case,don’t stop just because your case closes. That extra support will be really important to you as you transition from an open case to a closed one. Your therapist can also alert you if s/he sees behavior that may lead you down a path you shouldn’t be going down.
  2. Continue after care treatment programs. This might be AA or NA, or something else, but again, the additional support will be vital for your success.
  3. If you have a substance use disorder, stay away from the people you were using with. I don’t care how committed you are to your sobriety, you cannot rely on willpower alone. You must change habits, people, and sometimes even the environment that triggers the behavior leading to using. That may sound harsh, but your health and the safety of your children are more important than “friends” you use with.
  4. If you have been involved in a domestic violence relationship, you hopefully have a domestic violence advocate. That person can help you stay safe and out of those types of relationships. Relationship violence is not healthy, and it’s unlikely the abuser will change without intensive intervention, no matter how many promises he makes, or how sincere she sounds. And it can lead to another removal—or worse.
  5. Make new, positive friends, and stay connected to your family, if they’re healthy. The parents I see who are most likely to be successful both during the process and afterwards are those who have a strong, positive support system. This should likely include professionals, but should also include non-professionals. In addition to family and friends, you can build relationships with coworkers, other parents from your kids’ school or extra-curricular activities, at a church, synagogue, mosque, or other house of faith, or places where you might volunteer.
  6. Focus on your kids. If you find yourself struggling to parent them, you can take a parenting class (many are free, and there is a list on the resources page). Additionally, figure out what respite care might look like before you need it. Who could you call to watch your kids so you could have a break?
  7. Don’t try to do everything alone. In case you haven’t notice, much of this post is about support—professionals, non-professionals, groups, etc. Raising kids is hard; don’t try to do it all on your own. Ask for help when you need it.

Reasonable Efforts

If you are a parent who is DHS/Court involved, DHS is required to make reasonable efforts towards reunification. This typically involves offering an array of “services.” Some of these “offerings” are more like requirements: therapy, substance abuse treatments, etc. They are offers in the sense that they are designed to help you get healthy so you can safely parent your children, but they’re not really negotiable (unless you can demonstrate that contrary to DHS’ assertion, you don’t need those services).

Other services involve things like providing an FSRP worker (Family, Safety, Risk and Protection) to supervise visits so you can see your child, taking your child to therapy, etc. Finally, there are services that are designed to remove obstacles to reunification. These might include things like a bus pass, WalMart gift cards to buy clothes for the kids, and help filling out paperwork to get food and/or housing assistance.

Some things your attorney may request in the way of services will be deemed unreasonable, and the court will not require that DHS provide those services. For example, providing daycare assistance for your three-year-old might be considered reasonable, whereas paying for a nanny to come watch your teen while you are at work might not be. DHS does not have unlimited funds (and the amount the legislature gives them each year dwindles). Other things are not intended to be unlimited. For example, DHS can provide monthly bus passes, but not for the life of the case. It’s intended to be short-term; just long enough to get you to where you can provide for your own transportation.

At the beginning of the case, DHS may provide a number of services, and it is sometimes easy for parents to start to feel entitled to whatever they ask for. When DHS says no, I’ve seen some parents complain that DHS isn’t “helping” them enough. It’s important to remember to be grateful for what you are given, without expecting that you will be given everything you ask for. Services are designed to facilitate reunification—not provide for your every need or desire.

If DHS is truly not providing reasonable services, your attorney may file a motion asking the court to order the services you are requesting. And the court will typically ask you at each hearing if there are any other services you need. If you don’t ask, you cannot come back later and complain that DHS should have provided a service you didn’t request. While DHS will offer a number of things, it is up to you to ask for things you think you need, whether DHS has offered or not.

If a petition for termination of your parental rights has been filed, your attorney may argue that reunification has failed because DHS has failed to make reasonable efforts to help you reunify. Be aware that you will rarely win on this issue. The actions typically have to be pretty egregious for the court to grant this motion or deny TPR based on a lack of reasonable efforts. This is especially true if you are not doing your part to try to reunify with your children.

Finally, if you are not making reasonable progress towards reunification, and the court directs the county attorney’s office to file a petition to terminate your parental rights, it might also “waive reasonable efforts.” This means that DHS no longer has to provide services to you to try to help with reunification. It doesn’t usually mean they can’t, it just means they don’t have to. If you are not doing your part (e.g., refusing to go to therapy, not exercising visitation, not going to substance abuse treatment), the court is not going to require DHS to expend scarce resources to continue to try to help you.

The court wants you to successfully reunify with your children, and DHS can provide services and resources to help you do that. However, it is ultimately up to you to make the changes necessary to bring your family back together. If you are unwilling or unable to do that, you should not be surprised when the court terminates your rights. That may sound harsh, but the reality is that your kids need stability, consistency, and a home where they can grow and thrive. If you cannot provide that, the court and DHS will find one that can, because we want your children to have the best shot at growing up to be healthy, contributing adults.





CINAs for Children with Significant Mental Health Issues

Lately I’ve been working on several cases where the kids involved have had significant mental health issues—issues severe enough that they can no longer remain in the home. The diagnoses are different, but I am seeing other patterns that are similar, and thought I would share some of my observations. Following are the Top 10things I think it’s important to know if you are a parent of a child with significant mental health issues.

  1. “Great” is a relative term. If a child has cerebral palsy, and the doctor says he’s doing “great,” we know that great means something different for this child than it does for a child without cerebral palsy. Likewise, if a child has a diagnosis of PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder), RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder), BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder)[1]or any other significant mental illness, “great” will mean different things for her. Celebrate “great” when it happens, without comparing it to what “great” looks like in other children.
  2. There may not be a “magic treatment” that will cure your child of the illness and make him “normal.” If you wait for that before bringing the child back home from a PMIC (Psychiatric Medical Institute for Children) or shelter, the child will never return. Focus on getting to a point where the behavior and corresponding care is manageable.
  3. While it is often true that no one knows your child better than you do, it is also true that when you are in uncharted waters (such as childhood mental illness), you need to rely more heavily on the professionals. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a say in treatment, placement, etc. It just means that you will need to give up some control in order to get the best possible care for your child. You will need to be humble enough to acknowledge that you do not have all the answers. This takes a team—of which you are a valuable member, but not the only
  4. Most CINA (Child in Need of Assistance) cases involve families where the parent has abused or neglected the child. But not always. Sometimes CINAs are used to help parents access services not otherwise available to them, as in those cases where the child has significant mental health issues. Understand, however, that there are some things required by statute that may not seem to “fit” your case, but will still be required, such as a social history report, for example. This is not DHS “prying,” but rather a statutory requirement. Understand, too, that if, at some point, the court believes you are standing in the way of your child receiving the treatment she needs, the court may transfer “guardianship” or decision-making authority to DHS or a medical provider. The best way to avoid this is to be reasonable (at a time where it’s very hard to be anything but terrified for your child’s future). That doesn’t mean you have to go along with everything recommended without challenging anything. Let me give you another example in the “physical health” world. Let’s say a drug is recommended to your child, but you know he is allergic to that particular drug. You should, of course, speak up and tell the providers that. But let’s say you are refusing treatment because you read an (unverified) article on Facebook that says that drug causes some horrific condition. The first scenario is eminently reasonable; the second is not. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions related to the treatment (and what you’ve read), it’s just you should not unreasonably withhold consent for treatment.
  5. Medication is often prescribed for kids. It’s important to remember that just like medication prescribed for physical ailments, it can sometimes be trial and error. The key is that if one medication doesn’t work, try something else. The answer is probably not “no more medication.” I tell people that even something as minor as a physical wound needs treatment. If you have a reaction to Neosporin™you switch to Bacitracin™. You don’t just ignore it, because it will get infected, and then you have even bigger problems. You try something different. Same thing with mental health.
  6. Also with regard to medication, know that it is sometimes a trade-off between benefit and side effects, and that the cost/benefit analysis may change as you go through the process. For example, if you start with a medication that makes your child feel like a “zombie,” you may want to try something different. But if you get to a point where the level of aggression is so high that the child cannot actively engage in therapy, or is beginning to receive criminal charges, you may decide to try that medication again, at least long enough to allow therapy to take effect; you can then move away from that medication again.
  7. Understand that many behaviors are things that allkids struggle with or exhibit, just not at the level your child does. For example, it is normal for teens to begin pulling away from parents on their path to independence. Most will “rebel” in some fashion. Those behaviors are often magnified—sometimes significantly—in kids with mental health issues. Keep this in mind especially as your child approaches adolescence, knowing that what worked when they were toddlers probably won’t work when they’re a teen—which is true of nearly all
  8. Remember that you can’t protect your child from everything; this is true whether your child has mental health issues or not. You may think that something is a bad idea. You may even be right about that. But sometimes kids have to try things and even fail in order to grow. Instead of telling her (or the professionals) that you don’t want her to try something, help her talk through what that looks like, what has to happen for them to succeed, and identify potential obstacles (and solutions). Encourage her; tell her you are proud of her for trying new things and taking steps towards her goals. This can go a long way towards helping them succeed, but if they “fail,” don’t take the “I told you so” approach. That’s not helpful. Let me say that again—That’s not Instead, help her see what went wrong, and figure out what to do differently the next time. Help her understand that everyone fails at times—that’s how you grow.
  9. Sometimes there is both a physiological and behavioral component to your child’s behavior. Although tempting, it’s dangerous to “blame” everything on the physical injury or dysfunction. Certainly that should be addressed, but the physical aspects may be out of the child’s control. The behavioral ones, however, are within his control. The cause of the behavior is important to know in order to treat it appropriately. However, beyond that, it’s important to focus on learning to manage the behavior. The longer this goes unaddressed, the more ingrained the habits and behavior become, and the harder it is to change. Blaming behaviors on things outside the control of the child tends to lead people to do nothing. It’s the “It’s not my fault, so there’s nothing I can do” mentality. Everyone struggles with something in life; but we all have to learn how to get along in this world. I always try to get kids (and parents) to focus on what we can control, even if those are very small things in the beginning. Progress is progress.
  • One final word of advice. Threatening lawsuits if the staff or provider does anything you haven’t explicitly approved will not get you the outcome you want. It instead makes the provider hesitant to be candid, and less likely to work with you, out of fear that he might make a “misstep” (in your eyes) that will result in a lawsuit. This, plus your child’s behavior, may begin to make it difficult to obtain placement and care that he needs. The risk is too great for the facility, because despite best attempts, facilities cannot guarantee your child’s safety, due to the high-risk population they serve. This is true whether you are talking about other patients hurting your child intentionally or staff unintentionally hurting him when they have to restrain him. Keep in mind, too, that at some point, it could be your child who hurts another child or staff. This, again, is why I urge people to focus on the behavior that can be changed and managed, rather than blaming something external that cannot be changed (such as an injury). Certainly we want our children protected, and kept safe, but when your child’s behavior has provoked the injury, a threat of lawsuit is not appropriate. I’m not saying your child deservedthat response; I am simply saying she (and you) should not be surprised by the response. Unless you have evidence that the injury was intentional, your energy is better spent working with the providers to figure out how to keep your child safe going forward—and that likely includes a conversation with the child about the behaviors that led to the injury, including her actions.

So those are my Top 10 observations. As always, let me know if you have had a similar/different experience, or if you have questions.




[1]This disorder is rarely diagnosed before age 18, but if teens exhibit behaviors consistent with the disorder, they can receive cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical therapy (help with coping skills, thought processes, etc.)

“Choosing” a Lawyer in Juvenile Child Welfare Court

Often, people hold the belief that a private pay attorney is better than a court-appointed one. Certainly this can be true, but in juvenile court it’s often not true. Here’s why.

  1. The overwhelming majority of parents in juvenile CINA (Child in Need of Assistance) cases cannot afford a private attorney. This, of course, means that most of the attorneys in this area are on the court appointment list. That doesn’t mean those attorneys don’t do private pay work—it just means that the bulk of their cases are likely court appointed. A private pay attorney who is not on the court appointed list may not do a lot of juvenile CINA work.
  2. In order to be on the court appointed attorney list for juvenile court, an attorney musttake at least three hours of continuing legal education (CLE) specifically in the area of juvenile court. They are required to adhere to a higher standard of practice. This is not required of private pay attorneys. And as a practical matter, attorneys who practice primarily in juvenile court often attend far more than three hours of CLE in this area.
  3. Juvenile court is different from other areas of law; it is procedurally different (e.g., multiple hearings instead of one trial; exhibits are entered differently; rules of evidence and civil procedure are a bit different), but also philosophically It is not, as a general rule, as adversarial, and the goal is reunification of the family—not “win” vs. “lose.” Services are offered in furtherance of this goal. The court wants to see progress throughout the life of the case; it wants to see parents succeeding.

Because of these reasons, you may be better off with a court appointed attorney (if you qualify), even if you hire that attorney as a private pay attorney. They likely have far more experience in this area than a private pay attorney. Again, that doesn’t mean a private pay attorney can’t do a good job for you; it’s just that they may not have the same level of experience that a court-appointed attorney does.

My suggestion would be that if there is someone you have in mind, call the state public defender’s office to see if s/he is on the court appointed list for your county. If not, I would ask a few more questions of that attorney regarding his/her experience in juvenile court. I would ask if they are familiar with the federal and state laws regarding timelines, the purpose of the various hearings, and if they have worked with DHS before.

Ultimately, if the court appoints an attorney for you, you may or may not be able to “choose” who that is. And like any profession, some are better than others, even on the court-appointed list. But don’t assume that your representation will be somehow less if you have a court-appointed attorney rather than private pay, because in fact, the reverse may very well be true.



Best Practices

I’ve been in court a few times in the last couple of weeks, and wanted to share some more “best practices” for parents.

  1. When the Assistant County Attorney (“ACA”) is speaking, listen. Not talking while others are is, of course, basic courtesy. But it’s particularly important to listen to the ACA, because s/he will likely be telling the court (and you) what they expect. If you are busy whispering to your attorney the whole time, you are going to miss what s/he is telling you. And it will likely result in a stern “suggestion” from the judge that you stop talking and listen.
  2. Focus on what YOU are doing, not what the other parent is (or is not) doing. Juvenile CINA court is not a zero-sum game where one party wins at the expense of another. A real win is when both parents can be sober, healthy, and able to appropriately parent their kids. You likely have a fairly long list of things DHS is asking you to do, and will need to focus all your energy there. That doesn’tmean that if the other parent is endangering the child you ignore it; it just means that you don’t want to constantly harp on what s/he is doing that you don’t like or agree with.
  3. Stop the drama! Seriously—just stop. It doesn’t help you or your case, and it most certainly does not help your child. Drama and lying are the two fastest ways to turn your DHS worker against you, so pleasedon’t do this.
  4. Don’t use your kids to get to the other parent. If your child is old enough to have a cell phone, do not call him or her and say, “Let me talk to your dad/mom.” EVEN IF THE OTHER PARENT HAS BLOCKED YOU. Do not use your kids like this. You will need to co-parent, of course, but in my experience, one parent blocks another when that other parent is harassing them, yelling at them, or constantly fighting with them. If you are civil and reasonable, it is highly unlikely the other parent will block you. If s/he does, talk to your attorney about how you should communicate with that person going forward.
  5. Do NOT ask your kids for money! Do not make them feel guilty about not giving you money or helping you in other ways (providing food, etc.). YOU are the parent. You are supposed to be providing for them, not the other way around. If you try this, your visits will likely go immediately to fully and professionally supervised—possibly even phone calls.
  6. If DHS asks you to do a drug test, DO IT. If you don’t do it, it will automatically count against you as a positive test, even if you are not using. At this point in your life, you do not get to decide when you do and do not submit to a drug screening.
  7. Do not ask for more visits if you are not attending the visits you currently have.There are, of course, times when a visit has to be canceled, though that is usually due to inclement weather, sudden or severe illness, or some other emergency. If you have to miss a visit, let your FSRP worker know as soon as you know—don’t wait until after you have missed the visit (unless that is the soonest you can). If you are not consistently exercising visits, the court is not going to award more.
  8. DO make visits about your kids—not you. Ask them how school went, or soccer practice, or music lessons. Ask them about their friends. Don’t make empty promises, but reassure them that you are trying to do better. Don’t get defensive, and do take responsibility for your mistakes. Tell them you love them, and then show them that by following through on promises and DHS recommendations.
  9. Do not choose the other parent over your child.This can be a hard one, especially if there is domestic violence involved. But you are in a place where you must put the best interests of your child ahead of that of any adult—including yourself
  10. Let kids be kids.Please stop talking to them about adult things, including your substance use, the other parent’s infidelity, your need for bail money, etc. By the same token, don’t ask kids to help you find an apartment, provide food, clothing, or money for you, help you fill out forms (unless they are older and it is, for example, a school form about them), etc. Do not badmouth the other parent to them
  11. Do not criticize your child’s attorney or guardian ad litem to them.We work hard to build up trust with your child so we can advocate for their best interests. When you tell them things that aren’t true, it undermines the relationship, and makes it harder for us to help your child. If you truly think there is a problem, talk to your attorney about it.

Those are the best practices for the day. Let me know if you have others, or if you have questions about any of these.


And Another Thing…

While I don’t anticipate making this a series, additional ideas have surfaced in my sometimes-chaotic brain. While it’s true that some of these things may not be “possible” for very good (or more likely not very good) reasons, it is also perhaps true that at least some haven’t been suggested or considered.

Additionally, some of the ideas seem small and inconsequential—why bother? What difference could these small things possibly make?

This is not a political post, but I want to use a recent political “story” to illustrate a point about small things. Congress recently passed tax reform that contained a significant tax cut. There were some politicians who claimed these were “crumbs” and railed against the tax reform generally. Other Americans were thrilled to get those “crumbs,” because it did have a positive impact on their lives. That’s why microloans can make a difference in the lives of individuals in developing countries (or even in developed ones). You see, it’s not money that is the root of all (or even most) evil. It is instead the lack of money that causes problems.

The tax cut, combined with significantly reduced unemployment, helps ease financial problems for people. And when people are working and able to support themselves and their families, a lot of other problems take care of themselves.

I share this because some of the ideas in this blog post may seem small, yet they have the potential to smooth out some of the rough edges of the “system.” They reduce the dependence on DHS, so that cases can move forward even if the worker is, shall we say, not particularly responsive.

Lawyers can sometimes work around DHS, although that increases their workload, by forcing them to do the things DHS should be doing as the social worker. But there are some things that only DHS can do. And that’s where things get monkeyed up.

For example, only DHS can request bus passes for clients. In a case I had, DHS did not do that in a timely fashion. That resulted in the parent missing a family therapy session, a doctor’s appointment (needed to submit with his social security disability claim), and curfew at the shelter where he was staying (which meant he was locked out for the bitterly cold night).

What if, instead, the attorney could also request the bus pas? You could still have safeguards in place to make sure the money is spent appropriately, but this would prevent the kind of cascading problem that lack of transportation can sometimes create. And if multiple people requested the pass, it would still only produce one pass that could be picked up by the client at any bus station.

Another thing that only DHS can request is a family team meeting (“FTM”). Attorneys can, of course, request one from the DHS worker, but then the worker has to make the “referral” to the agency responsible for facilitating the meetings. And then the facilitator has to try to coordinate with everyone via email to set it up.

What if, instead, a request could be made online and could include the entire team? The FTM facilitator could provide a calendar of available dates that people could mark availability (and that would turn “green” on the dates where everyone was available, red for those who are not available, and yellow for those who have not responded) so the facilitator could see at a glance which date/time would work best. Part of the difficulty in scheduling these is that in the interim between when someone responds and the meeting is actually scheduled, other things come up in people’s calendars.

And maybe that technology would alert the facilitator if this particular case has already had a FTM in a particular quarter, so that a request could be sent to the supervisor for permission for another. Perhaps, in order to prevent that from becoming a problem, there could be a reminder sent to the supervisor in five days if s/he hasn’t responded; two days later the request is deemed approved if no response.

Finally, DHS often provides “resources” to parents/families. Unfortunately, what that sometimes means is, for example, if DHS is supposed to “help” them find housing assistance, they might simply provide a list of agencies for the parent to call. What if there was a list of these resources that could be housed in one easy place, with equally easy access? And what if that list became part of a checklist? DHS, attorneys, or other professionals could “check” the lists they need, click “submit,” and the software would print out only the requested lists to be given to their clients (or emailed to them, if the client has access to email)?

Finally, when talking about things the clients haven’t done, I hear, “we need them to be able to do that on their own.” And my response is often, “Yes. But not today.” In other words, at the beginning of a case, a parent is so traumatized and so overwhelmed that s/he cannot hear, process, understand, and do everything they are being asked to do.

What if instead, we implemented an educational philosophy: I do, then we do, then you do? In other words, in the beginning there may be some things that we do for our clients; then we do things with our clients, and then we transition to where they are doing things on their own. We may spend most of the time in that middle category of “we do” together, whether that means actually spending time with them helping them fill out forms, research resources, etc., or instead acting as a resource and sounding board for them as they work through decisions and choices.

What if our “what if” questions motivated us to actually solve problems, rather than idly lament all the problems in the system?


Do No Harm

Colin Witt is a juvenile court judge in Polk County. One of the things he reminds the “team” is that not only are we there to do good, we are also there to avoid harm. He doesn’t say this because people set out to harm families. Instead, it’s a reminder that sometimes we are trying so hard to do the right thing that we aren’t aware of the harm we are causing. And it’s not always possible to do both good and avoid harm.

For example, removing children from abusive homes is sometimes necessary to keep them safe, but even when that’s the right decision, it still harms the family; it’s traumatizing for kids and parents to be separated like that. Anyone who practices in juvenile law knows of that tradeoff; are the kids going to suffer more harm by being removed or being left in the home?

Less clear, although perhaps intentionally so, are the things that harm parents in our zeal to protect kids. Some would say that’s acceptable. Parents made “bad choices,” and now are suffering the consequences. What they fail to consider is that those consequences affect the entire family; they are sometimes hardest on those who had absolutely nothing to do with the “choice.” And sometimes we make bad assumptions. We assume kids want to be in a safe stable home away from abusive parents, when the reality is they want their home to be safe and stable; they want to live with their parents.

My philosophy has always been that the best way we help kids is to help their parents get healthy and be good parents. But we sometimes create additional obstacles that can make reunification seem like an insurmountable goal to the very people we are trying to “help.” Much of this has to do with poverty, of course, but many of these families were teetering on the brink of poverty before DHS became involved.

For example, there may be multi-generation families living together. Let’s say mom is using drugs. She “comes to the attention of DHS,” and it is determined that the children must be removed. At that point, DHS tries to find a relative placement to ease that separation for the child. Oftentimes that’s a grandparent. So far, so good. The problem now, though, is that mom lives with this grandparent. So “removing” the child actually means the opposite: the child stays in her home with the grandparent, and mom must “remove” herself.

I’m not saying that’s wrong, per se. But here’s what happens now—mom is likely homeless. That may mean she’s sleeping in a car, or it may mean she is staying with “friends” (who may be the people she uses with), or forced back into a relationship with an abusive partner. Yes, there are “shelters,” but these are often full, with a waiting list. And because she really had no warning that she was going to be homeless, she’s not on the list.

Now that we’ve added “get stable housing” to her list of already challenging things to do (go to therapy, get “clean,” leave your abusive relationship, visit your kids, stay involved…), is it any wonder that parents fail or ultimately give up?So have we helped the kids? Or harmed them? Are we basing decisions on what could happen, or what is likely to happen? If the parent has been using for a year, and only now was “caught,” is there really a risk of “imminent” danger?

I’m not saying DHS and the courts shouldn’t be involved; I’m just not sure removal is the right answer when it compounds the problem.[1]

But let’s say removal is appropriate. What if there was a shelter specifically designed for parents who become homeless as a result of involvement with the juvenile court? What if that shelter was staffed with social workers who could “supervise” visits between parents and children? That could offer some of the services specific to juvenile court parents, and assist with transportation? That could offer parenting classes, budgeting classes, and other things that would help parents trying to get better? Not to mention support groups.

Another, different problem arises when the custodial parent “comes to the attention of DHS,” that involves the noncustodial parent. Let’s say mom is the custodial parent, and the kids are removed due to her substance use disorder (let’s further say her drug of choice is meth). Dad has been paying his child support and seeing his kids every other weekend as ordered. He has a job, stays out of trouble, and minds his own business. But he does use marijuana “socially.” Never when he has the kids, and there is never any “paraphernalia” lying around.

But now DHS wants him to submit to a drug screen. When it comes back positive, they want him to have a substance abuse evaluation and treatment. They want him to have a mental health evaluation, even though there’s no indication he needs it. And so now, we have an otherwise appropriate parent who uses a drug that in some states is legal, but in this state is deemed so illegal that it can result in him not being considered as a safe placement option for his kids.

Again. Are we helping or harming?

What if the custodial parent’s involvement didn’t automatically trigger “involvement” for the other parent? Does their past “good behavior” when parenting their children count for nothing? Should we require DHS to identify specific harm that would be reasonably likely (as opposed to possible) to occur if the child were placed with the noncustodial parent?

The third problem has a pie-in-the-sky solution, but stay with me.

I sometimes have cases where the DHS worker is largely MIA. This is frustrating, of course, but when there is a family crisis, it goes far beyond frustrating. A motion claiming DHS has failed to provide “reasonable efforts” to reunify can be filed but will be unlikely to succeed, in part because of the funding implications.[2] I’ve heard of a judge removing a DHS worker from a particular case, but while this may not have the same monetary consequences, it does create more inconsistency for a family that often desperately needs stability and consistency.

What if, instead, we paired up DHS workers? Let’s say that each caseworker has 50 cases (I know that’s not DHS’ number, but let’s pretend that’s a more accurate number based on a different (and I would argue more accurate) definition of a “case”). What if we instead assigned 60 cases to two (2) workers? Each worker would be lead on 30 cases, but would have access to the files of their secondary caseload. If a worker knew s/he was going to be gone (vacation, FMLA, etc.), s/he could “brief” the back-up worker on the cases most likely to need attention in his/her absence; the back-up would have access to those files if, in fact, attention to that case was needed. And if an unexpected crisis arose and the primary DHS worker assigned to the case was unavailable/nonresponsive, the back-up could assist.

You could even go a step further, and say that each worker’s balance between court involved cases and differential response ones starts at 20/10 (for example – those might not be the right numbers), with a maximum of 25 court-involved cases. If a differential response bumped over to court-involved, giving the lead worker more than 25 court-involved cases, some of those cases could shift over to the back-up in exchange for differential response cases. Again, it should be relatively seamless since both workers are familiar with the others’ cases.

The problems identified are just a few I see in juvenile court. Whether or not these are the right solutions, or are even feasible—I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that no one is really thinking about new solutions. We’re spending our time tweaking old ones. This isn’t really due to people not caring; it’s more about a lack of time to come up with new solutions and then finding the resources (time, money, people) to test and then implement them.

What are your thoughts?


[1] Yes, I know about differential response, but that does not involve the courts. At removal and adjudication, we look to whether removal is appropriate at the time of that hearing. It almost always is. So the divide starts to look like differential response (family assessment) is for non-removals, and court-involvement is for removals. Even though one of the “reasonable efforts” questions when the court is involved has to do with what has been done to prevent removal.

[2] Reasonable efforts are those things that are designed to lead to reunification. It’s hard to see how some of the things DHS often includes in its list are designed to “reunify.” To be fair, some of the things attorneys claim should have been provided but weren’t, are things that may be important, but may not necessarily help to reunify the family. The more impoverished the family, the more of these things are on the list.

Guidelines for Testifying in a Juvenile Court Proceeding

As I prepare for a permanency hearing, I thought it might be helpful to include a few of the guidelines I provide my clients. While there may be others (or some that are specific to your case), these are general things that apply in nearly every case.


  1. Tell the truth. Do not lie on the stand.
  2. Answer only the question asked; do not offer information or elaborate unless not doing so would create confusion.
  3. If you don’t understand the question, ask to have it rephrased, or say that you don’t understand the question. Lawyers sometimes ask very bad questions, so don’t try to guess at what they are asking you.
  4. Let the lawyer complete his/her question before answering, even if you think you know where they are going with the question. The court reporter cannot take down testimony when multiple people are talking.
  5. Again, for the benefit of the court reporter and a “clean” record, always answer verbally (no head nods or shakes), with yes or no (not “uh-huh” or “unh-uh”).
  6. When you are being cross-examined, leave a brief pause between the question and your answer in case I want to object to the question.
    1. If the judge overrules the objection, you may answer.
    2. If the judge sustains the objection, do not answer.
  7. Do not let the other attorney(s) or witnesses bait you. Remain calm.
  8. Try not to fidget on the stand.
  9. Do not use profanity unless you are quoting someone who used it. Be respectful on the stand. Do not try to make the other parent look bad while you are on the stand.
  10. Remain on the stand until the judge tells you that you may step down.


Build Your Team

Yesterday was Thanksgiving in the U.S., and I saw a post by a dad I know who was grateful for his daughter; she gave him purpose and helped him through the bad times. This is a DHS/Court-involved family, where a substance use disorder was the reason for removal. While I understand his gratitude for his daughter and his belief that she is the reason he’s been able to get through challenges (and don’t doubt that that is a part of his successful recovery), there is another piece he’s overlooking.

His support team.

Supportive parents, siblings, and extended family. Encouraging friends and colleagues all make a difference.

I have another family that is struggling, and, if things go the way they have been, will likely have parental rights terminated. These parents have almost no family to support them, either because they don’t exist, or because these parents have burned those relationship bridges beyond repair. When asked about supportive friends, they could think of no one. Neither is employed (dad is disabled, and mom’s substance use and choice of violent partners keeps her unemployed), so there is no support there.

The services they have been offered go by the wayside, whether because of transportation issues, narrowed emotional and cognitive “bandwidth” due to everything else that’s going on, or the addiction itself.

And so they struggle to do everything alone.

And fail.

Yes, they have attorneys and DHS workers and FSRP workers. But those are not the people they can count on every day. And they won’t be there when the case closes, because it’s a professional relationship, not a personal one. So while those individuals are important to helping them reunify with their children, the professionals are not the most important long-term relationships the parents will need to rely on.

Traditionally, many people relied on their family, community, and church to help them through tough times. But we have become a society whose very mobility (and reliance upon faceless technology) makes those relationships difficult. We move away from our families, we don’t stay in any one community long enough to build lasting relationships, and many no longer have a church home, deeming it “irrelevant” and “unnecessary.” Some believe they are somehow not “good enough” to go to church, but churches are not for “perfect people.” Churches are for everyone who realizes that we need people in our lives we can count on to carry us through challenging times.

But people can build relationships within community as well. There are always plenty of opportunities to volunteer, no matter who you are, and giving back helps boost a sense of being needed — of doing things that matter. And shared mission creates an immediate connection that can be built upon to create friendships and connection.

Both quantity and quality of relationships matter. The stronger that network of support, the less likely you are to fall, or to fall as far. And no matter what you’re dealing with — whether big, serious issues like domestic violence, poverty, or substance use, or smaller, everyday aggravations — having people in your life to listen and offer support makes a big difference.

But you can’t just sit back and wait for those people to show up. You have to actively seek, build and cultivate those relationships. You have to reciprocate when they are struggling. And you have to be grateful for the people who are there for you — the ones who love you unconditionally, and the ones who always tell you the truth, even when it’s hard to hear.

Your “why” matters—but no more or less so than your “who.”