May 10, 2013

Juvenile Justice Lawyers: Helping Troubled Kids and Families

G.M. Filisko

Funny how a life-threatening illness can make you focus like a laser on what matters most. It just might be what landed Marilyn A. Moores in a seat in the Juvenile Division of Marion Superior Court in Indianapolis in 2005.

“In 2000, I was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer,” Moores says. “It really makes you think about what’s important in the world.” Moores had been a civil litigator for years, but when an opening arose on the juvenile court bench the governor had to fill by appointment, Moores threw her hat into the ring.

“I don’t know if the events are related, but something just told me to apply, and I don’t know how I got picked,” she recalls. “We’re a unified court, which means you’re appointed to the superior court, and the judges determine who goes to what bench. So even then, I never dreamed I’d get to this bench. I thought they’d say, ‘Rookie? Right! Thanks for asking. No, thanks.’”

But Moores did get that seat because no other judges wanted it. “I get that now,” she says. “It’s a lot of work, and it’s gut-wrenching every day. You see things that just break your heart. But you also see success stories. Immigrant kids whose parents have been deported go on and become super-good citizens. Young mothers turn it around and make something of themselves and a good life for their kids. While the system can make you insane, I feel blessed I get to advocate for the kids in our courts.”

Moores’ experience is typical in the juvenile justice world. Lawyers must steel themselves against the too-frequent heartbreaks while maneuvering within a system they don’t always agree with. Yet most wouldn’t do anything else.

Challenging Cases and Clients

Katy Slauson-Ross doesn’t win too many cases. The assistant public defender in the Cook County Public Defender Office in Chicago represents parents accused of abusing or neglecting their children. “I help them navigate through the system to hopefully have their children returned to them,” Slauson-Ross says. “If that’s not possible, my job is to get them the most contact with their children that is possible.”

Though Slauson-Ross has won only a handful of trials in her 15-year career, she remains dedicated. “I always knew I wanted to be public defender,” she says. “When I started working here, I had the opportunity to move to other departments, and I did for a little bit. But I came back because I like being able to work with a family, build a relationship that in some cases can span for years, and see the results.”

Sara DePasquale, on the other hand, represents children. “I tend to see one of two clients,” says the directing attorney at Kids Legal in Portland, Maine, which handles civil legal issues affecting low-income children. “It’s either a young child—a first- to third-grader—who has severe disabilities in behavior or mental health but isn’t identified as disabled, or is identified as disabled yet is disciplined and removed from school as opposed to having an education plan put in place.

“Our other typical client is a disaffected teen who’s basically a throwaway,” DePasquale continues. “School officials have thrown the child out, or the child has dropped out and may have run away. Those kids have a lot of issues. They may be in the juvenile system, and they may be receiving assistance through teen outreach. They’re the kids people are afraid of. It sounds really crass, but in terms of funding and letting people know who we serve, I feel like I have to make the seemingly undesirable or undeserving kids desirable and convince people they’re salvageable.”

Wherever they’re employed, juvenile justice lawyers agree some clients can be, frankly, not very defendable or even likable. “Some days, when I see pictures of kids who’ve been abused, I think, ‘How do I defend my client?’” Slauson-Ross explains. “I just have to remember my clients were usually themselves victims earlier in life. They’re not awful, mean people. They’re troubled. I also try to remember to listen to them because a lot of people don’t listen to them.”

Much harder for Slauson-Ross to deal with are mentally disabled clients who don’t fully understand the process. “When the court terminates a mentally deficient parent’s rights—I hate those cases,” she says. “I’ve had clients say to me, ‘When do I get to see my kids?’ I have to say, ‘You don’t.’ They want to be a part of their kids’ life, and they should. But Illinois doesn’t have open adoptions.”

The Best Bad System Around?

Another challenge is that the system is as imperfect as the clients it serves. Frustration with the system is what led Laurie Gray to leave her full-time job in the field. Gray started out while still in private practice by notifying her local court she was available to serve as a guardian ad litem in child welfare cases. Then she served for 10 years as a deputy prosecutor in child abuse cases. Gray still serves on a multidisciplinary team at her county child advocacy center, today as a forensic interviewer questioning children about potential abuse.

“There’s so much red tape,” explains Gray, who heads Socratic Parenting LLC in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which teaches people to apply the Socratic method in parenting. “You’re definitely going to have times when you’re incredibly frustrated with the system, the people in it, and your ability to accomplish what you feel needs to be accomplished. However, as frustrated as I am, when I look at the kids in the system, I’m glad I’m able to help.”

Even when the system does work, it can’t heal all wounds. “I was working with a kid who’d been in the child welfare system after being molested by her dad, and I had to try her case three times because the first two ended in mistrials,” Gray explains. “After the second time, I couldn’t go to work the next day. I eventually told her, ‘It’s up to you, but I think we need to do it again.’ She [agreed], and her dad ended up going to prison for 200 years. While I could try to make the justice system work for my clients, I couldn’t totally right the wrong. The tragedy of the event isn’t something the legal system can address.”

Moores agrees the system has its flaws, but she also sees progress. “There’s a line in the movie Argo that goes something like, ‘It’s the best bad plan we have,’” she says. “The system can be very maddening. But one thing good about juvenile court—that’s completely different from the civil system I spent 25 years practicing in—is that it’s much more collaborative. We meet regularly with the Indiana Department of Child Services, guardians ad litem, prosecutors, and defense lawyers to identify the decision points being missed to improve the practice.”

The American Bar Association’s Commission on Youth at Risk is also working to improve the system. “The Commission helps develop ABA policy on important issues involving young people in all the systems that work for them, including child welfare, mental health, education, and juvenile justice,” says Ernestine S. Gray, an Orleans Parish Juvenile Court judge in New Orleans and advisory counsel to the Commission. “We’ve developed policies opposing juvenile life without parole and supporting children aging out of foster care.”

One example: Because their families are typically troubled, children who leave foster care after reaching the maximum age may face challenges because they’ve been victims of financial improprieties. “We’ve learned of instances in which their Social Security Numbers and birth certificates were used by people taking out loan applications in the children’s name,” Judge Gray says. “The Commission recommended that child welfare agencies adopt policies calling for credit reports for children leaving foster care to make sure they at least leave with a clean credit history.”

Victories Large and Small

Lawyers in the field are by no means getting rich, but they aren’t doing it for the money. They do it for the successes, in whatever form they come. “There are small victories, like when a parent calls out of the blue to say, ‘I wanted to let you know XYZ happened; thank you,’” DePasquale points out. “Or when someone you represented in an emancipation case says, ‘I’m in the apartment now, and I’ve signed up for counseling’ after mom or dad wouldn’t let her go because she’d disclose abuse.”

Fewer—though still there—are the major victories. DePasquale is reminded of them each time she glances at what she calls her wall of successes. “I have a bulletin board I’m looking at right now,” she explains. “I see two different tickets for high school graduations for people who wouldn’t have graduated if we hadn’t advocated on their behalf. There’s a photo of a probate court judge, the parents, and their nine-year-old with severe special needs after their adoption was complete. We don’t often see the big wins, which is why I have the bulletin board. But they’re there.”

This dedication in good times and bad is crucial to the success of those who practice in the system and the system itself. “Everybody has to remember these are lives we’re working with, not pieces of paper and not folders,” Judge Gray says. “We have to see the work we do as representing children, and we want for those children the same things we want for our own children, recognizing we might fall short but setting our mark high so we do the best for every child. We can’t get comfortable with this as just a job. It’s a calling.”

G.M. Filisko

G.M. Filisko is a lawyer and an award-winning, Chicago-based freelance journalist who covers legal, real estate, business, and personal finance topics for such publications as the ABA Journal, Consumers Digest, REALTOR Magazine,, and