Problem Solving

One of the most well-known pieces of general business advice is that to be a problem solver; if you can solve a problem someone has, you will make money.

But this isn’t only true in business, or in the narrow outcome of making money. In juvenile CINA cases, the biggest problem for children is that they have been separated from their parents—the people they usually love most in the world. Now, the parents have underlying problems that have created this “umbrella” problem of separation, but those aren’t the child’s problems. In other words, if a child was removed because a parent was using drugs, the drug use is the parent’s problem, and the separation is the child’s (although, of course, the separation is also the parent’s problem).

Too often, parents believe that someone else has the power to solve that problem. DHS can recommend reunification, the attorney can “fight” for it, and the court can order it, for example. But while those three things are true, they are only true if the parent has solved his or her problems. If substance abuse was the cause of the removal, then the parent must get healthy; if s/he doesn’t, DHS will not recommend reunification, the attorney has not grounds on which to “fight” for reunification, and the court will not order it.

Ultimately, then, it’s up to the parent to solve the problem.

I often tell parents that in no other area of (litigation) law does the client (i.e., the parent) have as much control over the outcome as they do in juvenile court. It rarely feels like that, because so many people are telling them to “go here, do this…” But the reality is—if the parent will substantially comply with everything DHS and the court is asking him or her to do, they will almost always get their children back.

But only the parent can decide whether to comply with those requirements. Only the parent can attend therapy, go to substance abuse treatment, exercise visitation, etc. DHS can’t “make” them do those things, and even the court cannot “force” them to (although the court has the power to make it very, very painful if they do not).

It’s up to the parent to make that decision and commitment and to follow through.

To paraphrase Art Williams, I’m not saying it will be easy. I’m saying it will be worth it. Kids want to be with their biological parents, even when those parents are not perfect (and no parent is perfect). But they can’t solve that problem. Only the parents can.





What Did I Do Well Today?

Many of us use task lists to keep track of all the things we need to do. But while that’s a good thing as far as it goes, I’ve started asking myself a different question at the beginning of each day. Instead of asking what I need to do that day, I ask, “What has to happen for today to be a successful day?”

This question is different, because while we may check off a lot of things on our to-do list, those things may or may not keep us moving forward towards our goals. Too often, we choose the easiest things to tackle first, leaving no time for the most critical tasks. At the end of the day, we feel like we were busy all day, but accomplished very little.

But even when we are working on critical tasks, we may not feel like we’ve accomplished much, because we can’t put that coveted check mark in front of the task; it’s too big to complete in one day, so it sits on the task list day after day.

Asking what needs to happen for the day to be successful addresses both of these problems. First, it requires that we prioritize and focus on the things that are most important (which, to paraphrase Goethe, should never be at the mercy of things which matter least), instead of those that are easiest. Second, it reminds us that even when we don’t complete something, working on the project on a daily or weekly basis is important to its ultimate success.

Additionally, this question is broader than just work. And it is here where it can sometimes have the greatest impact on the lives of parents who have had their children removed, especially due to a substance use disorder. It recognizes that some days, “success” will mean something as basic as getting to work on time. Going to an NA/AA meeting. Complying with a no contact order.

In her book Option B (co-authored with Adam Grant), Sheryl Sandberg writes of her grief over the unexpected death of her husband. She shares that she began a journaling practice that was focused on one specific question: What did I do well today? She notes that at first, she was skeptical; her moments of success included things like, “got dressed today.” But that was a “small win” that research says is significant. In one study, people who spent just 5-10 minutes a day writing about things that went well and why had reduced stress levels, mental and physical health complaints within three weeks.

Grant also notes that this is different from a gratitude journal. His research found that gratitude, perhaps in part because it is passive, does not make us happier or more confident. But recognizing our contributions does. It is active; we have done something to contribute. To me, this is why it is more effective than positive affirmations like, I’m a great person. Simply saying something doesn’t make it so; if my self-confidence is in the tank, it’s because I don’t think I’m a great person. Saying that I am feels like a lie—there’s no “evidence” to support it. But recognizing and acknowledging the things I’ve done provides that missing evidence (and may help your attorney advocate for you more effectively).

If you are a parent who is involved with the juvenile court system, whether your child has been removed or not, here are some possible things to put on your “What has to happen for today to be a success” list (and ultimately your “What I did well today”):

  • I will be “clean and sober” today[1]
  • I will be on time for my hearing.
  • If I have visitation, I will (play on the playground with my child, read a book to my child, feed my child a healthy meal and talk to my child while we eat, etc.)
  • If permitted, I will call my child before s/he goes to bed and read him/her a story.
  • I will attend conferences for my child.
  • I will go to my therapy appointment.
  • I promptly returned calls to FSRP and DHS, even if I’ve relapsed. They can help me get back on track.
  • I will apply for one job.
  • I will ask my friends/family/FSRP worker for help when I need it.
  • I will learn something new.
  • I will go for a walk.

These are just a few examples, and they aren’t designed to create overnight change, of course. But they can create the small wins that keep people moving forward towards those big goals.

You are worthy of parenting your child; but you have to believe that and do everything in your power to demonstrate that to the people who are making decisions about your children (e.g., DHS and the court). Although it may not feel like it sometimes, they want you to be successful, too. However, their ultimate goal is to protect your child.

So go do the work, acknowledge each small success, forgive yourself for past mistakes, ask for help when you need it, and keep moving forward.

[1] Some in this area are suggesting that we get away from using the word “clean,” suggesting that it has a negative implication connected to the person. However, “clean” in this context means a clean drug screen—not whether the person is clean or dirty.

Monthly Task List

Sample Task List


The Monthly Task List (“MTL”) is one of the most important things that can help you stay on track. Both the court and DHS will require that you do certain things in order to reunify with your kids. There may also be “assignments” following a Family Team Meeting (“FTM”). As your attorney, I will pull all those tasks together into one document—the Monthly Task List. I will be your “accountability partner” so that you can successfully reunify with your kids as quickly as possible.

Additionally, the FTM notes may have tasks that other people are to do. For example, your FSRP worker might have things to do to help you be successful. Those things will not appear on your Monthly Task List. Only your tasks will be there.

The MTL will, as the name implies, be updated monthly. However, it will also be updated after a hearing and after I receive the FTM notes, so that you always have a current list.

Finally, if you are required to go to therapy, I would strongly advise you to share this list with your therapist. It will help him or her to focus on the things that are most important to DHS and the court, ensuring that you are working on the things that matter most to the decision makers in your case.

How it Works

At the top of the page is general information, along with the date of your next hearing (and which hearing it is), and the date of the next FTM (if one is scheduled).

The main part of the MTL is divided into 3 parts:

  • Critical tasks—these include visitation, therapy, and substance abuse (including drug testing). This list is the same for every client, although they may not apply to every client. If you are not required to do a certain thing on the critical tasks lists, it will show up as “Not Applicable.” (N/A). The three things in this category are the most important things you can do to get your kids back.
  • Important tasks—These are also important, but may be things that don’t really have a deadline, or are a one-time-only task. You can see some examples of this above. These are just examples—your list will look different.
  • Agreements—These are ongoing things that you must do, such as maintain sobriety, or comply with a no-contact order. Again, these are just examples, and your list will be specific to you and your situation.

At the bottom is a place for notes. If you need any additional services, or if there’s something I need to know, you can write it here, and we will talk about it the next time I call. If it’s an emergency, of course, you can call me.

I will plan to call you regularly to see how you are doing. Please have this sheet in front of you when I call. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t have it when I call, but it will help make our phone call more efficient, because you can just refer to it, rather than try to remember what you did, when.

Questions? You can email me at