October 25, 2011 Articles

Conference Provides Resources for Parents' Attorneys

By Darice M. Good and Diana Rugh Johnson

On July 13–14, 2011, in Arlington, Virginia, the American Bar Association's (ABA) Center on Children and the Law held its second National Parents' Attorneys Conference. This conference is a valuable opportunity for parents' attorneys to gather, share ideas, compare notes, and share war stories.

This year's conference offered two plenary sessions and 16 breakout sessions taught by attorneys, judges, and social workers who are leaders in their fields. Some breakout sessions focused on innovative approaches to persistent issues in parent representation, such as the timing of the termination of parental rights hearings, representing minor parents who are themselves in foster care, representing parents who are accused in both dependency and criminal court, representing unaccused parents in sexual abuse cases, and advocating for incarcerated parents. Other sessions focused on emerging topics, such as the reinstatement of parental rights, representing parents prior to removal of the child, and interdisciplinary models of representation that include social workers and parents who have previously been involved in the child-welfare system.

The conference also offered the unique opportunity for attendees to participate in discussion groups on topics such as appeals, working with vulnerable populations, out-of-court advocacy, using social workers, and resources for rural practices. In these discussion groups, attorneys shared their knowledge and worked together to develop ideas for overcoming barriers to effective parent representation. Through their discussion groups, many attorneys were able to network and make the connections necessary for future collaborations.

Why This Kind of Gathering Matters
The ABA's National Parents' Attorneys Conference is an essential gathering for two reasons. The first is legal, technical, and educational. The family's right to protection from government interference has long been established under the Fourteenth Amendment, but defending that right in state court is complicated. Child-welfare law is unique in that the cases are heard in civil court, but they are quasi-criminal in nature. Effective parent attorneys must be well-versed in state statutory and case law, local court rules, U.S. Supreme Court cases, and the litany of federal legislation that governs child welfare. Add to this the fact that there is no blanket protection against self-incrimination and that the hearings are almost exclusively bench rather than jury trials, and you have an area of law that is full of nuances and pitfalls that take years of training and experience to truly master. The National Parents' Attorneys Conference is a rare opportunity for parents' attorneys to enjoy the exchange of information and sharing of ideas that many agency and children's attorneys, as part of their state or county systems, are able to take for granted.

The second reason is strictly emotional. Representing parents accused of abuse and neglect is lonely work. Attorneys who represent accused parents are often reviled by fellow attorneys and laypersons alike. Unlike criminal-defense work, which most people recognize to have serious constitutional implications, the representation of parents accused of abuse and neglect is viewed by many as defending the indefensible. Inside the courtroom, parents' attorneys fight constant pressure from opposing counsel and even from judges to go along. In many jurisdictions, filing motions, making objections, insisting on evidentiary hearings, and other forms of zealous advocacy are seen as obstructions, unnecessary delays, and a waste of the court's time. It is emotionally taxing to be in the trenches, fighting a system whose energies and resources are focused so squarely against our clients. In a field where burnout is a constant hazard, meeting with and learning from other parents' attorneys helps to reignite the passion that led us to this work.

Building a Movement
As parent representation has developed into a specialized field and its practitioners have become more skilled, across the country, courts are beginning to realize that effective representation for parents is good for families and good for children. Effective parent representation provides a necessary check to the power of child-welfare agencies and helps to ensure that children are not unnecessarily removed from their homes. Effective parent representation also helps to speed the reunification process for children who must be removed.

The closing session of the 2011 conference was a town-hall meeting led by Professor Marty Guggenheim of the New York University School of Law. Attendees discussed the current state of parent representation and what needs to be done to advance the practice. While many parents' attorneys already utilize the ABA's national listserv for parents' attorneys as a source of information and venue for discussing practice and policy issues, many attendees expressed the need for parents' attorneys to form a stand-alone organization, to publish a law journal, and to develop their own training materials. Parents' attorneys are building a movement that, whatever form it takes, will continue to strengthen families by fighting for the rights of parents.

To learn more about parent representation and to be connected to other lawyers representing parents, visit the ABA's Center on Children and the Law's National Project to Improve Representation for Parents Involved in the Child Welfare System.

Keywords: litigation, children's rights, parents' attorneys, ABA Center on Children and the Law, National Parents' Attorneys Conference

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Darice M. Good and Diana Rugh Johnson — October 25, 2011