Language, Part Four

Most of us have a general idea about how to talk to kids in age-appropriate ways. In this case, I’m not using that phrase to mean things that are “age-appropriate” in the sense of profanity, or sexual, or anything like that. That’s obviously important, but right now, I just want to talk about age-appropriate in terms of helping kids understand their case. I want to tell you how I talk to kids about their case, so that if they talk to you about it, you will know first, what they are talking about, and second, you will be able to use consistent language that they will be familiar with in responding.


HomeworkWe don’t necessarily tell kids that parents have to do substance abuse treatment, or domestic violence work, because they don’t usually need that much information. We just say that their parents have to do their homework in order for kids to go home. They have to be safe, not just for a day or two, but all the days. If the child is in therapy (most are), we might tell them that the parent has to go to therapy too, though we don’t tell them what the parent is working on.


Judge – Depending on the age of the child, s/he may or may not know what a judge is. I just tell them that the lawyers and the DHS worker helps the parents and the kids, and then we tell the judge what we think should happen, but the judge gets to make the decision. The judge is in charge of what happens in their case. (I once had a little girl say, wide-eyed, “He decides everything about the world?!” After that, I made sure to add “about what happens in your case.) This helps us when the kids are asking when they get to go home, whether they’re going to be adopted, etc. When they ask those questions, we say something like, “I don’t know. Remember, your parents have to do their homework, and the judge will collect all the information, listen to everyone, and then decide.”


CINADepending on the child’s age, we may say something like, “the judge decided that your home wasn’t safe right now, so s/he needs you to live somewhere else. S/he decided that you and your family needed the judge’s assistance (Child in need of assistance) in figuring out how to make sure that your home is safe. DHS is going to give your parents some homework to help them learn how to keep you safe. Then the attorneys and DHS will help make sure they do their homework. This might take them a while to do; it might seem like it’s taking forever, but it’s not. But it sometimes takes a while to learn and practice these new things. (Sometimes I can talk to them about their homework, and how it takes them a while to learn new things.) But we will check in with the judge every now and then and tell him/her what’s going on, and how your parents are doing. This is called a hearing, and it’s kind of like your school conferences. And then eventually, the judge will have to decide whether your parents have done their homework so that you can go home.


Hearing – A hearing is a meeting (sometimes in person, sometimes on the computer) that DHS and the lawyers have with the judge to let him/her know what’s going on, and how your parents are doing with their homework. But we also tell him/her how you are doing. Some kids like to go to this meeting, but other kids don’t want to go. Either is fine. Some kids don’t want to go to the hearing, but they might want to talk to the judge and tell them what they think about their case. If you want to do that, just tell me and I will set it up. I will be there with you, and there will also be someone there taking notes about what we talk about to help everyone remember.


Casethe word “case” is just a word that we use to describe why the court’s help is necessary, and all of the work that the attorneys, DHS, and parents are doing to try to get your family back together. 


Sometimes kids are having behaviors, and we aren’t sure why. I represented a little girl who would have behaviors after a sibling visit. These visits were fully supervised, either by a professional or a foster parent, so there wasn’t anything going on during the visit itself that was problematic per se. She also loved her siblings, and was always excited to see them, so it didn’t seem to be that. So, one day, when she went to see her therapist, her therapist was wearing her detective hat.




“Susie” looked at her questioningly. The therapist said, “Sometimes things are going on, and we’re seeing certain behaviors, but we’re not sure what is causing the behaviors. It’s a mystery. So, I have to put on my detective hat to try to figure it out. Sometimes you give my clues, but sometimes I have to ask questions (she does not use the word “interrogate”!), and collect other information. Then I form a hypothesis. (She explains what this word means, if necessary). And then I check in with you to see if I have it right. If not, I look for more clues, and then I form a new hypothesis.”


At that point, Susie (who has an appealing level of sass) rolled her eyes and said, “There’s that word again!”


Eventually, the therapist figures it out, in part because she recruits the child to help her solve the “mystery.”


I am not cool enough to have a detective hat, but I do something similar.


When I’m talking to a child about what’s going on (usually a specific scenario), I will say something like, “I’m kind of wondering about something that I want to run by you. But if I’ve got it wrong, I want you to tell me. Will you do that?”


They always agree. I go on to say, “I know that ‘some kids’ (feel/think/do whatever). I’m wondering if maybe that’s what’s going on with you. What do you think?” Oftentimes, there would be silence while they considered what I was proposing. If I was right, they would often say something like, “Yes, I think that’s true.” One child I represented was quick to say, “No, that’s not it at all” if I got it wrong! But even then, it might give him enough insight to be able to tell me what was going on in his head. So, it was still a win.


But this only works if you have built a good rapport with the child, and the child trusts you. If the GAL only sees or talks to the child once every three months or so, they’re not likely to get the information they’re looking for.