Interview with Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Helen Meyer, ret.
(See "Rethinking Parent Representation in Minnesota: Law Clinic Steps Up" for an in-depth article on this clinic.)
Justice Helen Meyer is a former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice. She now serves as a Distinguished Jurist in Residence at William Mitchell College of Law, Saint Paul, Minnesota. In that role, she pursues scholarship interests, teaches and mentors students, and serves as a role model for law students and young lawyers. She also leads the board of advisors for the law school’s Child Protection Clinic and is working with the school to help establish a new chair in child protection legal research and scholarship.
How are you involved with the clinic at the law school?
I chair the board of advisors of the Child Protection Clinic. There is a full time professor, Joanna Woolman, who provides instruction and supervision of the students. Our clinic is unique, in that in addition to the clinical professor, we have a board of advisors, which includes representatives of all constituents of the child welfare world. The board of advisors does fund raising for the clinic, provides advice to Joanna Woolman, and helps direct next-steps for the work of the clinic. Because the board includes a range of child welfare stakeholders we are able to support the clinic by reaching out to our constituents and bringing the work of the clinic to the larger child welfare community. We are cheerleaders for the clinic and the important work of representing parents in these cases.
What do you think is key to the clinic’s success?
The most important key to success is that the law school has a deep tradition in clinical education. Because William Mitchell has such a strong focus on clinical education there was a natural opportunity to start the clinic at the school. The second most important factor has been finding the right clinical instructor. Joanna Woolman has been essential to the success of the clinic. She is a phenomenal lawyer and teacher.
How did your position as a Minnesota Supreme Court Justice influence your view about quality parent representation in child welfare cases?
At the Supreme Court level we see very few child welfare cases. The few that I did see there were issues raised about lack of quality representation for parents. Often what I would see is that there was a lack of quality representation at the very first hearing in the case. It is critical that parents have quality representation when their case start—at that first hearing.
As a Supreme Court Justice, were you concerned about the representation parents receive at the trial or appellate levels?
My interest in representation for parents in general did not come through the cases I saw from the bench. I became focused on this issue in 2008 when the Minnesota Board of Public Defense stopped providing representation to parents in child welfare cases. I was worried that there was no unified body providing representation for parents. In place of the public defenders, counties were forced to develop a patchwork model of representation, where every county has a different model. Trial court judges expressed concern that representation was uneven for parents. Some representation was and is great and some representation is poor. I see a need to unify the patchwork to be sure that a parent in one county receives the same opportunity to have quality legal representation as a parent in another county.
What are some barriers to parents receiving quality court appointed counsel in child welfare cases? Are there ways to overcome them?
I see two main barriers to parents receiving quality legal representation in child welfare cases. The first barrier is the inadequate training of lawyers representing parents. Right now there are no standards in Minnesota for training for parents’ attorneys who handle these cases. A standard is being developed, which is a good thing. Training for parents’ attorneys must focus on working cooperatively with the child welfare agency but also working aggressively to get appropriate services to clients. In addition, attorneys need to be trained in how to help clients change their behavior when necessary.
The second main barrier to parents receiving quality representation is funding. We need to elevate this work and help people understand how quality representation for parents helps achieve reunification. Better funding of parent representation will result in cost-savings. There is some support for this in child welfare research and literature, but we need more.
Is the clinic addressing these barriers?
Yes, the clinic is moving more into a role of providing statewide training to parents’ attorneys. Minnesota has a new minimum standard for parent attorney training. William Mitchell and the clinic plan to be key partners to the state in providing the training.
The work of the clinic and law school will help develop scholarship about the link between quality representation for parents and child welfare cost-savings. The Justice Helen M. Meyer Chair in Child Protection has been awarded to Nancy Ver Steegh, Mitchell’s Associate Dean for Academic Programs. She plans to focus her research on how early appointment of quality representation for parents leads to improved outcomes to children.
Right now there is a lot of anecdotal information about the crucial role parents’ attorneys play in the reunification process. There needs to be better documentation of this link. The clinic is also hoping to contribute to that scholarship. We don’t want to begin gathering and analyzing data too soon, but we have members of the clinic advisory board who are experienced in this type of research. Contributing to this area of research is a very important goal of the clinic.
You and your husband have provided substantial support to the clinic and the endowed the Chair in Child Protection at William Mitchell. Why is it important to support this area?
By endowing a chair, the hope is the commitment to the welfare of children will really be institutionalized at the law school. Rather than have this issue be the subject of government funding or foundation funding, which can come and go. For me, the endowed chair is one way of forever establishing a place and group of people who care about this issue and will be committed to it.
William Mitchell was the ideal place to create the chair because of their commitment to clinical education. That is so important. We want to grab students and their passion to do good and to meet the students at that point in their career where they are looking for what they want their life’s work to be. I hope that through the clinic and through the work of Professor Ver Steegh we can help the best and brightest students take the passion they have to help families out into the field.