What Should I Expect at Court?

Dear Parents in Juvenile CINA (Child in Need of Assistance) cases:

Here are some things you might like to know before heading into court.

  1. Iowa practices a “one family, one judge” That means that barring any unforeseen circumstances, your hearings will be in the same courtroom, with the same judge every time.
  2. Parking can be a challenge downtown, so plan to arrive early. The on street, metered parking near the courthouse has a two-hour limit. The Hy-Vee parking ramp is free for the first two hours and $3.00 for every hour after that. Ramps tend to be around $1/hour. You will not be able to go “feed the meter” during a hearing, so ask your attorney how long the hearing will be so you can plan appropriately. Click here for parking ramp locations, and here if you are interested in a Smart Card parking card. The advantage to the card is that you can put the maximum time into the meter, and then “reload” whatever time is left back on to your card.
  3. Children can attend their hearings; in some cases, the judge may require you to bring them. If they attend, you may want to have another adult there who can take the child out if the judge asks you to do that (if, for example, the judge wants to hear information that s/he does not believe would be appropriate for the child to hear). Let me know if you plan to bring the kids.
  4. You will sit at counsel table with me. There are microphones at counsel table that are fairly sensitive, however, so if you need to speak to me privately, you may want to turn away from the microphone and speak quietly.
  5. If you are incarcerated, you may still be allowed to attend the hearing in person or by telephone. If you attend in person, you will be accompanied by law enforcement, who will remain in the courtroom. You may be allowed to meet me prior to the hearing in a secure room. You will be allowed to sit at counsel table with me.
  6. Juvenile court is a bit more informal than other courts. The judge may ask you some questions. One of the questions s/he may ask is if there are any other services you need to be successful. These may be financial, or services such as therapy, or even things like bus tokens to get to various appointments. You can also talk to me about what you need.
  7. Wear your “poker face.” Do not allow anyone to provoke you in the courtroom, do not “get into it” with the other parent (or anyone else), and do not give people the “stink eye” in court. The judge will see all this, and will not like it. In other words, be civil and polite, in order to give the judge the best impression of you possible.
  8. As your attorney, I am your advocate; if you’re having trouble with something, or are having trouble getting hold of DHS, contact me and let me know. Yes, I represent you in court, but I can do that much more effectively if I know what is going on beyond the courtroom.
  9. If you fail a drug test, quit going to therapy, or fail to do something else the court or DHS has asked you to do, tell me when it happens (please don’t wait until your hearing!). Except for very limited circumstances, I cannot reveal to anyone what you tell me because of attorney/client privilege (though these things will likely come out anyway), but I can help you get back on track faster.
  10. You don’t have to be perfect. But you do have to substantially comply with what you are being asked to do.

Other questions? You can email me, contact me through your MyCase portal, or talk to me when we meet before your hearing. Write down your questions as they come up so you don’t forget; don’t ever feel like any question is too silly to ask. It’s important that you be as well-informed as possible throughout the process—it’s your case, after all, and I want the best outcome possible for you.

Custody vs. Physical Care

Recently, I’ve seen a spate of men wanting to change “custody.” Although I’m not sure why this is, there are a few things that are important to know.

First, the term “custody” itself can be confusing. “Legal custody” is typically joint, and has to do with the rights parents have to their children’s records—medical, educational, criminal, etc. Legal custody gives them rights to participate in decisions regarding these same areas, as well as other things like extra-curricular activities, religious upbringing, and so forth.

Physical care, on the other hand, has more to do with where the child will live. “Primary physical care” is when the child lives with one parent most of the time; the other parent has visitation (and it may be significant visitation). “Joint physical care” is when the kids spend roughly equal time with each parent. That may mean that the kids are bouncing back from house to house, or it could mean that the children stay in the family home and the parents come in and out.

Obviously, joint physical care requires a significant amount of cooperation on the part of the parents, and an ability to get along and put their children’s needs above their own. This is not always possible, of course.

Modification typically takes one of two forms (in relation to physical care). If there is primary physical care, a modification can request that the court change physical care from one parent to the other. If the original decree awards the parents joint physical care, either parent may seek a modification to primary physical care.

Regardless of which type of modification is involved, the basic requirement is that there has been a substantial change in circumstances not contemplated by the court at the time of the original decree or order. If the modification is from joint physical care to primary physical care, the fact that the cooperation and arrangement hasn’t “evolved” as anticipated (in other words, the trial court thought the parents would be able to “get along,” but that has not proven true) may be grounds for modification.

Keep in mind, too, that the court’s primary concern is the best interests of the children—not the parents, necessarily. The court will look at how disruptive a change in physical care might be, for example (which means generally that the longer a child has resided with one parent, the harder it will be to persuade the court that a move is in his/her best interest). The court will look at not just the change in the home, but whether it will affect schooling, nearness to friends and family, a new city or state, and so forth.

That does not mean that a move on the part of the custodial parent will automatically justify a modification. Courts have been reluctant to prevent parents from moving when there are good reasons for the move (e.g., economic, the need to care for aging parents, moving with a spouse who has changed jobs, etc.). But it may be a factor.

The other thing I always tell parents is to take the high road. I don’t care what the other parent is doing—I want my client doing the right thing. Following are some of the specific ways to do that:

  • Don’t fight with your ex, especially in the presence of your children.
  • Don’t “badmouth” your ex to your children.
  • To the extent possible, cooperate with your co-parent. Even in situations where it is not possible, be respectful and civil.
  • Always keep in mind what is best for your child(ren), and behave accordingly.
  • Don’t be unreasonable.
  • Don’t do things with the sole intention of hurting your ex, or making things difficult just to make them difficult.

You do not have to be a “doormat,” of course, but the court will hear evidence of each parent’s behavior and interactions with the other. It will always work in your favor to be the parent who is trying to do the right thing. There are court opinions awarding physical care to the parent who demonstrates the greatest ability to work with the other. So yes—it’s important.

There are, certainly, times where modification is appropriate. But make sure you are doing it for the right reasons; in other words, when it is in your child’s best interest.



Some of the questions a lot of people have are about the hearings. Although your case may be different, here is some general information about Child in Need of Assistance (“CINA”) case hearings. The hearings are listed in order, and also tell you the purpose of the hearing, and what might happen at each hearing. If your case is different, feel free to ask your attorney to explain your situation to you.

At the end of each hearing, you should receive an order setting the date for the next hearing. You may also receive an order regarding the court’s findings and decision, though if it is a bit more complex, that may be filed later.


Removal Hearing

This is the very first hearing that takes place, and it occurs within ten (10) days of your child’s removal from your care. The purpose is to determine whether, at the time of the hearing, the child can be safely returned home. It is not to determine whether the removal was “right” in the first place.

Side note—At the time of removal, DHS may ask you whether you will test positive if you do a drug screen. Do not lie to them, or hope that it will come back negative. If they’re asking about drug usage, that may mean they are concerned about the possibility that you might be using. And if they’re concerned, they will almost always require you to take a drug test. If it comes back positive after you tell them it will be negative, your credibility will be damaged, which will hurt you going forward.



The Adjudication Hearing takes place within sixty (60) days of the removal hearing. This hearing is when the court determines whether your child is in need of its assistance, based on the evidence presented. If the court finds that you have abused or neglected your child, or if the judge finds you are using, making, or selling drugs illegally, it is likely the court will find that your child is in need of its assistance.

If the court finds that your child does need its assistance, the court can make one of the following decisions regarding where your child will go at this time:

  • If your child was not removed, but is found to need the court’s assistance, s/he may be permitted to remain in your home.
  • If the child was removed, the court could return the child to your home, but may still order services.
  • Your child may go to the home of a relative, or
  • Your child could go to foster care (or in rare cases, to a facility/group home).


Dispositional Hearing

This hearing is held within sixty (60) days of the Adjudication hearing, but will sometimes be held at the same time as the Adjudication Hearing. The court will determine placement, custody, supervision, and services.

Talk to your attorney before the hearing to discuss what services you might need to help you reunify with your children. These might include (but aren’t limited to) substance abuse treatment, therapy (for you and/or your children); bus passes (if transportation is an issue), housing assistance, etc. If you’re not sure what services you need, start by thinking about what’s getting in the way of your success in reunification. For example, if you are at risk for being homeless, ask for housing assistance. If you are having trouble maintaining employment because you don’t have reliable transportation, bus passes might be an option. Although DHS will off various services (or in some cases, require them), it’s up to you to ask DHS and the court for the services you need that they may not have offered.


Review Hearing

Approximately six (6) months after the Dispositional Hearing, there will be a review hearing. At this hearing, the judge will check in to see how you are doing. This might be a good time to talk about visitation.

There are three (3) types of visitation: supervised, semi-supervised, and unsupervised. If you start at supervised visitation (which is common), then the goal is to gradually increase visitation and move to semi-supervised visitation, and then to unsupervised visitation. There will almost always need to be at least some unsupervised visitation prior to reunification.

 Supervised Visitation is often done by the FSRP worker, but may also be done by a relative.

Semi-Supervised Visitation acts like a “bridge” between supervised and unsupervised visitation. The FSRP worker might not be at the whole visitation, but may drop in and out. Or some types of visitation (e.g., in a public place, for short periods of time) might be unsupervised, but longer visits in the home might be supervised.

Unsupervised Visitation is where you want to be leading up to the permanency hearing if possible. That’s not always possible, and it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to reunify.

If the visitation is going well, you can always ask DHS to increase your visitation or move to semi-supervised. Talk to your FSRP worker as well, because s/he may see you more often than DHS, so his/her opinion about when you can increase visitation will carry weight. If there have been problems, either with visitation or, say, a relapse, that might not be the best time to ask for more visitation or semi-supervised visitation. If you’re not sure, ask your attorney.

If you ask DHS and are told no, ask (politely) for the reason(s) and then visit with your attorney about it. If there is a hearing coming up, your attorney can ask the judge to grant more (or different) visitation, even if DHS doesn’t agree. If you can demonstrate to the judge that you’ve earned it, s/he will sometimes grant your request even if DHS disagrees.

But remember—don’t ask for more visitation or semi-supervised or unsupervised visitation just because you want it. You have to demonstrate to DHS and/or the court that you have earned it by having a good track record of recent visitation without any other issues (such as relapse, for example).


Permanency Hearing

At the permanency hearing, the court could do one of four (4) things:

  • Return your child to your care/custody (with or without closing the case)
  • Grant an extension so that you have more time to demonstrate that you’re ready to reunify. This sometimes happens if you’ve been doing well overall, but maybe had a “hiccup” —maybe you relapsed or are having issues with housing, for example.
  • Don’t terminate, but set up some other permanent arrangement, such as a guardianship.
  • Termination of Parental Rights – this is the outcome you do not This would end your legal relationship with, and rights to your child. The court could direct the county attorney or guardian ad litem to file this petition, or, if it has already been filed, the judge could rule on it at this hearing.


Termination of Parental Rights

This petition is considered to be a separate case with separate case numbers, but all of the evidence from the CINA comes forward into the TPR case. Although you would have the right to appeal a TPR if you lost, the odds of getting that decision reversed on appeal are not good, so it’s important to prevent that from happening if possible.

Most cases reunify, which should encourage you. But not all of them. You can dramatically increase your chances of reunification if you do what the courts and DHS are asking you to do on a consistent basis. If there is something that you truly believe is an unreasonable request, talk to your attorney about it and let him or her raise that issue.

There are a few other hearings that sometimes occur, such as a modification hearing (if something happens that necessitates modifying placement or visitation, for example), or a permanency review hearing. But the ones listed above are the most common ones.

As always, if you have general questions, feel free to email me. If they are specific to your case, call your lawyer. They are there to represent you, so don’t hesitate to ask them to help you.

How to Work with DHS Towards a Positive Outcome

As most people know, DHS has been in the news a lot lately—and not for good reasons. Following the starvation deaths of Natalie Finn last fall and Sabrina Ray more recently, Iowans—and their representatives—have been outraged (against the parents, DHS, and pretty much everyone involved; unfortunately, they don’t always have their facts right). While the death of these girls is horrific, of course, it is important to know the facts and how they might (or might not) apply in your case.

First, both girls had been adopted out of foster care. Once a child is adopted, there is no oversight by DHS, the courts, or anyone else. In the eyes of the law, those parents have the same legal rights (including the right not to have the government looking over their shoulders) as biological parents. That lack of oversight is not true when a child is in foster care, either during a CINA case or pre-adoption. If your child has been removed and placed in foster care, there is pretty significant oversight. DHS, FSRP, and (if one is appointed) CASA are doing regular visits, as is the guardian ad litem. The court is involved, there may be family team meetings, and in most cases, the biological parents (you) have visitation. And remember—the child can only be adopted if your parental rights are terminated. If you do what the courts and DHS are asking you to do, it is highly unlikely anyone would be suggesting termination.

Second, while politicians do care about what happens to kids, they also often have their own agenda—reelection. This means that things sometimes get exaggerated, often to catch the media’s attention. Again, that doesn’t mean they don’t care about your kids—it just means they have a parallel motive. But just because they are publicly calling for resignations and criticizing DHS in very strong terms doesn’t mean you should be fighting with your DHS worker. Keep in mind that the politicians are criticizing the organization; if they criticize individuals, they are criticizing those in positions of power and authority with DHS—not, by and large, individual workers, which is who you will have contact with.

Third, although you have the greatest control over the outcome of your case, DHS obviously plays a significant role. You are in control of complying with what DHS and the Court ask you to do, but it is DHS who makes recommendations (that may or may not be approved by the court) as to what those services will be. They also recommend, based upon your actions, whether to reunify your family or terminate parental rights. Knowing that, it makes more sense to work with DHS than fight with them.

So here are 10 tips for successfully working with your DHS worker:

  1. Do your very best to comply with what they are asking you to do. If they “recommend” that you go to therapy, go to therapy. Exercise visitation (without creating problems at the visitation). Don’t use drugs. Don’t violate no-contact orders (in cases with domestic violence). If you think DHS is making an unreasonable request, talk to your attorney. If your attorney agrees with you, she can raise that issue. But in most cases, you will be required to follow the case plan.
  2. Make sure your DHS worker (and everyone else on your team, including your lawyer) has your current contact information. If you move or change your phone number, let them know. It’s very important that they be able to contact you.
  3. Attend all hearings and family team meetings. Put them on the calendar, on a big piece of paper stuck to the refrigerator, or ask your attorney. Don’t guess, and don’t skip it. If a conflict arises, contact your attorney right away and ask her to help you resolve the issue.
  4. If your DHS worker is recommending (or suggesting without saying it outright) that you do something that contradicts what your attorney or a medical professional advises, talk to your attorney immediately about that. For example, I’ve heard reports recently that DHS is leading parents to believe that they will not recommend reunification if the parent is taking methadone or Suboxone. Their doctors, however, are stating that they need to be taking it for at least a year in order for it to work. While there may be reasons for doing that, it puts you (the parent) in a difficult position. Sometimes parents try to stop the methadone or Suboxone and end up relapsing—and this can be very dangerous. Clearly, that’s not good. Talk to your attorney if you find yourself in this position, and never simply stop taking your medication without talking to your doctor first. There is a lot of misinformation out there about MAT (Medication Assisted Treatment), so it’s important to get your attorney involved so you can stay on your doctor’s plan without repercussions.
  5. DHS workers often have very heavy caseloads. This means that they cannot always get back to you right away. If it’s urgent, call your lawyer, and tell him what the problem or question is and that you have tried to call DHS, but haven’t heard back. Your attorney is there to advocate for you, so don’t hesitate to call him when necessary. That doesn’t mean call him for every little thing, but it does mean that it’s better to call than to simply not comply.
  6. Don’t verbally (or physically, of course) abuse your worker. Saying things to them like, “my child is going to be starved or abused in foster care” (at removal, for example) will not help you. Remember—while the CINA case is going on, there will be significant oversight and DHS/FSRP/ CASA/Court contact with your child. Being respectful and civil goes a long ways towards a good working relationship with your DHS worker.
  7. Related to that—if you know of relatives who might be suitable placements for your child(ren), share that with DHS. A non-custodial parent, grandparents, aunts/uncles, and even, on occasion, adult siblings might be a good choice. And if there are no relatives, there may be an adult with whom the child has a good relationship that would be suitable. This might be a coach, Big Brother/ Big Sister volunteer, or someone from church. Not everyone will be able or willing to do this, and DHS may or may not approve them, but it doesn’t hurt to make the suggestion.
  8. Treat your worker with respect. I understand that you are or may be afraid, angry, or feeling many other “high emotions,” but giving (loud) voice to those emotions does not usually help you. Keep your focus on what is best for the kids. If you have an attorney (which you may not have at the time of removal, which is also the time when emotions are running highest), let her fight those battles.
  9. If you are asked to do a drug test, DHS may require you to test even if you tell them it will be “dirty.” There’s really no point in arguing with them about it—just do the test. If there’s a scheduling problem, talk to them about that, but it’s generally not a good idea to flat out refuse. Sometimes DHS will require you to do a drug test because they need to know what you are taking. For example, some parents will say they will test positive for marijuana (which may or may not be true), but they will actually test for something much more problematic, like heroin or cocaine.
  10. Be honest. If DHS asks whether a drug test will be positive, don’t say you’re clean if you know you’re not. This just harms your credibility when the drug test comes back positive. Don’t say you’re clean in the hopes that the drug you took won’t show up. It probably will. In the case of relapse, it’s better to admit it and then go on to emphasize what you have done to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Whether it’s about substances or something else, the truth will usually come out; if you have been less than honest, that will only hurt you.

DHS workers are not bad people whose goal is to take your kids away from you. They are people who became social workers in order to help people. They care about your kids and want what is best for them. They also want you to succeed, because reunification is usually (though not always) best for everyone involved. Like any profession, some workers are better than others. But I have yet to meet a worker who doesn’t want what is best for your kids (even if I disagree with her assessment of what that means).

But DHS workers also have heavy caseloads and a lot of paperwork. They don’t have much control over either of those things, so they do the best they can. I’m not saying that’s ok—I’m saying that’s the reality right now. There are people (including politicians) who are working very hard to make changes that will have a positive impact, but this will not happen overnight. Your case might be over before they make any changes. But if you follow the tips above, your experience with DHS will be much more positive, and you will be more likely to have a good outcome.

And isn’t that the goal?

To Social Media or Not; That is the Question

Some attorneys advise their clients to completely avoid social media when they are involved in juvenile court (or even family law court sometimes). While there are good reasons for that, I don’t take that position with my clients, for the following reasons:[1] First, most clients are going to ignore that advice, so I think it’s better to simply offer suggestions to minimize the potentially negative effects. Second, in this day and age, social media is how people stay connected, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, or any of the other platforms. Complete abstention can create feelings of isolation, which are rarely helpful, especially when people are struggling with challenges (which they obviously are if they are in juvenile court).

Although not all-inclusive, the following are my top 10 tips to protect yourself from the negative aspects of social media, while boosting the positive ones.

  1. Privacy Settings – This is very, very important. Make sure your social media isn’t wide open to everyone who comes looking. DHS workers, attorneys, and others involved with your case may be looking for information about you on social media. Sometimes this is benign or even helpful (say, for example, if you forget to update your attorney when you change your phone number and she needs to reach you), but other times, people are looking for less-than-flattering information that may be used against you. While there are certain ethical rules on what these professionals can and can’t do, generally speaking there’s nothing saying they can’t look at a public profile. I would suggest changing accounts to private, or in the case of Facebook, restrict access to friends (not even “friends of friends”).
  2. Make sure friends really are friends—We’ve all gotten those friend requests from people who appear to have a “mutual” friend with us. Their profile picture looks respectable, so we figure they’re ok. But I always tell people that if you don’t know them, don’t friend them, regardless of whom their “mutual” friends are. If you think it’s someone you just don’t remember (say, a former high school classmate), you can send a personal message to the “mutual” friend and ask who it is. If they say, “I don’t really know—I just accepted their friend request them because they are friends with [name],” you should not accept their friend request.
  3. Friends of Friends setting — The above reasoning is why I also don’t suggest setting your privacy settings to “friends of friends,” at least not while your case is active. You have no idea who these “friends of friends” are, or who they might know.
  4. Your Case — Please do not share details of your case on social media. While you have an attorney-client privilege with your attorney, you may, practically speaking, destroy that if you share all those conversations and details on social media. Additionally, do not share any frustrations or criticisms about DHS, the judge, the other parent, or anyone else involved with your case on social media. Trust me on this one—it will not help you, and has the potential to really create a lot of problems for you. Save those conversations for your attorney, where they are protected by the attorney-client privilege (but don’t be a constant complainer, either).
  5. Photos — There may be some very good reasons why you might not want to share photos of your child on social media (e.g., protecting them from pedophiles and traffickers). But if you decide to share, I would suggest sharing photos that show a positive, loving relationship and good parenting. For example, playing at the playground, reading to your child, attending family events (picnics, etc.), or school events will all portray you and your relationship in a good light to whoever may be looking. But I would suggest not including any identifying information, or location of places the child routinely is, such as school. So you might say something like, “so much fun attending my daughter’s graduation from preschool! Really proud of her.” You haven’t provided your child’s name, nor have you provided her school name or location. Don’t “check in” at the event, either. And as a side note, please make sure you’re not posting photos of other children without their parent’s permission.
  6. Photos Part Two — Be very, very careful about posting photos of yourself (or being tagged in photos that others take—check your privacy settings) at parties or other places (e.g., gambling casinos) that might raise eyebrows with your DHS worker. That also goes for behavior that might not portray you in the best light, even if the location is not problematic (e.g., a photo of you at home, but drunk). This is true even if your child is not with you at the time.
  7. Posts — If your friends and family are aware of, for example, a substance use disorder you have, you can post milestones, such as, “Today is my 100th day of sobriety!” and bask in the congratulations and encouragement that come in. This is a positive milestone that, even if someone involved in your case sees, will help you, not hurt you. I would strongly urge you to not post information about any relapse. Not because your team won’t find out (they almost always will), but because that’s not how you want them to find out. Save your posts for positive things you are doing, and the progress you are making.
  8. 140 Characters — Many people have lost jobs or relationships because of misunderstandings due to Twitter’s character restrictions. And even if there’s not misunderstanding as to content, there may still be a problem with tone or intention. To me, Twitter is much more negative, harsh, and used as a place to vent and tear down than the other platforms. This is one you might want to take a break from. When I took a 40-day “sabbatical” from Twitter, I was amazed at how much better I felt. Now I am only on rarely, and for very short periods of time. I do not miss it, though I did at the beginning of the 40-day abstinence.
  9. Positive feeds — I have three Facebook pages: my personal page where I “hang out” with friends and family, my Case Navigator™ page, and my Jean M. Baker Law Office page. SnapChat is reserved for pictures my kids send me, LinkedIn is for professional, work-related posts, and Twitter can just be vile sometimes (especially if you are following a lot of political people). When I added Instagram, I made a conscious choice that that was going to be my “happy place.” I only follow a very small circle of positive people and organizations. It’s where I find some great, positive, encouraging things, beautiful photos, and people sharing happy events. I do not allow political posts or negative ones. During this stressful time for you, I would suggest that you liberally use the “unfollow” button (you don’t have to unfriend people, and they don’t know) and that you seek out positive people and organizations. This is also true of your boards and searches on Pinterest. Filling your mind with encouraging, beautiful things and removing the negative ones is proven to have a positive effect on your mental health.
  10. Use common sense — It is almost never a good thing to post when you are angry or upset. While it’s true you can delete a post, it is also true that screen shots can allow posts to live forever. If you ask yourself what might happen and your answer is, “I don’t even care,” (especially if there’s an expletive in there), DON’T POST IT. If it is critical of one of the professionals involved in your case (DHS, the judge, etc.), DON’T POST IT. If it shows you drinking heavily, gambling, or using (or at an “event” with people who are doing those things), DON’T POST IT. If it shows you making bad or questionable parenting choices, DON’T POST IT.

Hopefully, this helps you make decisions about what to post, where, when, and how. Remember—those decisions are up to you; this post is just designed to help you think through those decisions. And while I don’t claim to be a tech guru, if you have basic questions about privacy settings, feel free to email me at jean@jeanmbaker.com, and I will be happy to help you or suggest someone who can.

And, of course, you can always Google it. 😉

[1] As always, this post should not be construed as legal advice. Talk to your attorney or the attorney of your choice if you have questions or need legal advice.

Leaving Kids Alone

Last night, one of my neighbor boys came by to ask if he could use my phone. I don’t know his name, but I’ll call him Billy. The boys are, I would guess, upper elementary age. I agreed, but asked, “What’s up?” He said that his sister was supposed to pick him and her son (I’ll call him Joey) up after school, but that she didn’t (they ride the bus home). So he called, but got no answer. As it was 8:00, I asked if they had had dinner. They had not. So I went to McDonald’s, and $14 later, the boys were fed. I asked them what time Billy’s mother would be home from work, and was told late—“11:00 p.m.” late.

When I told the boys I was not comfortable with them being home alone that long/late (especially since they would be sleeping), they said they do it “all the time.” I told them that the “plan” we were going to follow was to try to call Joeys’ mom again after they finished eating, and then if she didn’t answer, we would call Billy’s mother. They agreed to that plan, and this time when Billy called her, she answered. She apparently asked for Joey, who spoke briefly to her, and then said very meekly, “Ok, Mommy.” I know there was discussion about whether they had eaten, because Billy said, “the neighbor” (me).

Shortly thereafter, she showed up, yelled at the boys to “Get in the car!” and then left.

There are a number of observations I want to make here.

  1. Although I’m not aware of any “magical age” at which DHS says it’s okay for children to be left alone for extended periods of time, these boys might not have been considered old enough. Short periods of time, yes. But here are the problems with last night:
    1. The boys were left alone from the time they got home from school until 9:00—and would have likely been alone until 11:00 had they not been able to reach the Mom/Sister.
    2. “Forgetting” to get them is a common occurrence according to them—not a one-time misstep.
    3. The boys were not fed.
    4. The boys didn’t have access to a phone in case of an emergency.
    5. There was no “protocol” for checking in with the boys to make sure that Mom/sister had picked them up as agreed (and again, because this is apparently a somewhat common occurrence, someone needs to be checking in)
  2. Mom 2/Sister yelled at the kids when she picked them up. But I heard no apology for forgetting them, or that they weren’t fed.

So the question is—Could/should I have reported this to DHS or the police?

Good question. My thought process in not reporting went something like this:

  1. The boys do not appear to be physically abused or malnourished. They also did not report any abuse or ongoing issues with food.
  2. Mom had made arrangements, but Mom 2/Sister had “forgotten.” Although the boys said it was a somewhat frequent occurrence, I’m not sure what that means exactly. While most of us would be horrified if we forgot our kids, it does happen, usually when the routine varies. My husband once forgot to pick up our daughter because it was an early out day. He didn’t forget entirely—just forgot to go early.
  3. What I have seen of the boys tells me they are pretty responsible and independent. Generally speaking, I like to think that parents are the best judge of whether and when their children can be safely left alone. I was babysitting infants and toddlers when I was not much older than these boys, so it’s hard for me to say that they are definitely too young to be left alone.
  4. I have talked to the boys about what to do in the future if they find themselves in that same situation (e.g., come see me earlier if they haven’t had dinner!). And I will now likely keep a closer eye on things; if I start to see a pattern and practice of leaving them alone (especially now that it’s summer and school is, or will shortly be, out), then I would still first try to speak to the mothers.
  5. I believe that even if I had reported it, DHS would have either rejected the “complaint,” or perhaps sent it down the “differential response” path. This means the court would not have been involved, but parents would have been offered “services” (though I’m not sure what kind of services would be helpful in this situation). So I would have caused problems and stress for no good reason, and the boys might be hesitant to come to me in the future if they needed help. I did not believe the boys to be in “imminent danger.”

But others might have called. So if you are a parent thinking of leaving your kids alone, consider doing the following:

  1. Make sure there’s a Plan B that your kids can follow if someone “forgets” to pick them up.
  2. Check in to make sure your kids are where they are supposed to be, with the individual they are supposed to be with. Don’t assume everything is fine.
  3. Make sure they have access to a phone in case of an emergency. It would also be a good idea to make sure they know how to get out of the house in case of fire.
  4. If possible, enlist the help of a neighbor you trust. The person doesn’t have to do anything other than be available in case a problem arises, or the child needs help with something. They can also keep an eye on things if they know the child is home alone. Give that person your telephone number so they can reach you if necessary.
  5. Make sure there is food available for your child. They don’t have to be able to cook; even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and fresh fruit will work.
  6. It’s probably not a good idea to leave them alone past their bedtime, though there may be situations where that would be ok.
  7. Don’t yell at your child when it’s you who has messed up. J If you forget them, apologize sincerely. And then figure out what you can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. For example, you can put it on your calendar and set an alarm.

Being involved with DHS and/or the courts is almost never an experience you want to have. Follow the steps above to minimize that risk—to yourself and your child.


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 jean@jeanmbaker.com.