“All of you who want to hear from us now on panels and at conferences about our experiences, we’ve been telling you our whole lives that the system is traumatizing us.”
—Speaker with lived experience in Albuquerque, NM
The Children’s Rights Litigation Committee (CRLC) conducted a Listening and Appreciation Tour in the spring and summer of 2019. Through this tour, the Committee reached approximately 500 lawyers through visits to Wilmington, Delaware; Montpelier, Vermont; Omaha, Nebraska; Montgomery, Alabama; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Albuquerque, New Mexico. In each city we heard from speakers with lived expertise in the child welfare and/or juvenile justice systems. From their presentations, below are six tips on how to be a better children’s lawyer.
- Invest your time in your clients. Get to know them and visit them regularly, not just before court. Care a little more, be welcoming, slow down. Listen to your clients even if what they want is not what you think is best. Guide kids through the process and prepare your clients to come to court, otherwise “it’s just a field trip.”
- Look at a child’s behavior in the context of his trauma. Instead of seeing our client as a bad child, we need to see him or her as a child who is going through something difficult. Some speakers called this an empathy gap between lawyers and their child clients. One youth said he was labeled as “defiant and disobedient” and said had people been more understanding of him then he would have been more open. Another reported that her passion was sometimes mistaken for anger. While critical to look at our client’s behavior in the context of trauma, one youth speaker reminded the audience, “There is so much more out there than my trauma. It is so important to share opportunities with youth, to let them know about possibilities,” and to expose them to experiences beyond their trauma.
- It is the job of a lawyer to put his or her client in context for everyone else in the case. Lawyers need to know a client’s story in order to do that. Learn about your client’s background and pain. Understanding her trauma can help you tell her story. Courts get caught up in thinking they know what is best for kids and so sometimes do not listen to our clients. It is our job as lawyers to make sure that clients are heard. Youth are often in the system because they don’t have family support, so it is critical that youth have a checklist of exactly what to do. It can feel to youth that there is no way out of a situation—they do not see a light at the end of the tunnel—so having a concrete and reasonable list of tasks that will move a youth out of the system is extremely helpful.
- Lawyers need to ask if clients are safe. If a client is running, lawyers need to ask why. Several youth speakers in different jurisdictions talked about how they ran to keep themselves safe but explained that their lawyers never understood that. One speaker described her lawyer as assuming she was having fun while she was on runaway status while instead she was being trafficked by a gang. Her lawyer never asked her if she was safe. A speaker in Utah noted that safety in placement is something that a lawyer with lawyer-client confidentiality is uniquely qualified to address. In a panel in Omaha, Nebraska, focused on the role of the lawyer, the youth expert shared that had she understood lawyer-client confidentiality she would have shared more with her lawyer, especially about why she was running from placements (which was to protect herself), underscoring that lawyers need to ensure that our clients understand lawyer-client confidentiality. For more information see Five Tips for Lawyers to Talk to Clients about Safety.
- Family connections, especially sibling connections, are critical for kids in state custody. Siblings know what you have been through and are a human connection with family. One youth talked about her sisters who were the only relationships that were important to her. The department cut off those relationships so when she turned 18, she had no one. Youth speakers encouraged lawyers to think about visitation as not just with parents but also with extended family like siblings, nephews, nieces, cousins, and grandparents. One youth described how he had a family member die and he was not allowed to go to the funeral (nor had he been allowed to go to the hospital to see his family member before he died). Normalcy in visits are also helpful. Visits should not feel institutionalized but instead be held in more natural settings. Stability for child clients is also critical. Disruption and multiple moves really have a long-term impact on youth. One speaker from Omaha, Nebraska, had been through 88 placements. In terms of its impact on school, one youth went to 14 different high schools. Another youth spent so little time in multiple homes during 15 months in foster care that she was never enrolled in a school. Lawyers must focus on stability for our child clients. For more information see Five Tips for Advocating for the “Most Connected Placement.
- Failing and recovering are an essential part of growing into a resilient adult. Speakers in many trainings discussed the need for youth to be able to fail, but our systems do not generally give our clients space to do so. One mistake can mean a disrupted placement or being sent to solitary confinement. Instead, lawyers need to advocate within systems and in court for clients to be able to fix mistakes rather than to suffer catastrophic results that harshly punish rather than to teach them needed lessons. Speakers also noted that there is nothing a child can do EVER that should result in solitary confinement.
These tips underscored a message the committee heard over and over on the tour which is that lawyers should not give up on any kid. Every child is worth fighting for.