February 01, 2016

Serving on a State Taskforce: Tips for Making it Work

Sally Small Inada

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

You carry a tough caseload representing your county child welfare agency. It’s hard but you manage and can sometimes catch your child’s soccer game. Congratulations, your good work has been noticed: your supervisor asked you to participate in a statewide taskforce to implement HB4980, the Strengthening Families Act. 

This federal law covers sex trafficking, Reasonable and Prudent Parenting Standards, and revisions to the permanency option APPLA—Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement. The taskforce is looking at ways to better protect and monitor victims of sex trafficking that are part of the foster care system; provide older youth with a more “normal” experience in foster care by looking at such things as driving privileges and the ability to participate in afterschool activities; and increase the age for APPLA.

You’ve been vocal about giving agency foster kids opportunities to play on a sports team, in the school band or in the spring musical. You also know the agency’s chief counsel is worried about liability; what if a foster child sprains an ankle playing football or trips over a prop moving scenery? This is a complex issue, and states are facing challenges implementing it. You want to be part of the solution, but…

But the state taskforce meets in the capital four hour’s drive away. Usually it meets once a month, but sometimes the meetings go for an extra half day. That’s 12-15 days over 12 months. Your supervisor can’t lighten your caseload, so you’d have to juggle cases, court dockets, and days away from work and family. 

It’s time to list the pros and cons to see if you can make this work without shortchanging your current responsibilities.

Pros: Good for Career 

  • You can help influence how the Act will be applied at the county level—that means no surprises for your agency.

  • You will learn how to negotiate in a different way than in court. There are a lot of opportunities available working in large groups to hone your negotiation skills.

  • You’ll be making relationships with state, and even national, attorneys opening a new level of resources for you and your agency.

  • You will begin to develop a reputation across the state as a “go-to” attorney—one who knows the law and is able to help get results for your client.

  • You will have networking opportunities—you never know when you might want to look for a new job.

  • You want to dig into this issue and it’ll require research and writing. This was a skill you’ve used in the past but it’s gotten rusty, so this is an opportunity to refresh it. And there are lots of online opportunities to do research now so it’s easier to do research than it used to be.

 

Cons: Extra Work on Top of Heavy Workload 

  • Distance and time, just getting there and back will eat eight hours of your tight schedule.

  • You want to dig into this issue, but it’s going to require research and writing. That takes blocks of time and you aren’t near a good law library. It may take more time to polish your skills.

  • You’ve committed to helping your child’s soccer team and that also involves time and traveling, likely some dates will conflict.

  • It’s hard to sit through large meetings with a lot of people talking--it can seem like it’s a time drain.

  • You still have to handle your other responsibilities.

  • There’s a risk you won’t get the desired outcome after all your work and time. 

  • You decide to do some quick research. You call your colleague from the next county who’s been part of several state workgroups to ask: How does she manage? 

  • It was a productive call. You might be able to manage this.

 

Strategies 

  • Your colleague does most of her research by computer; she suggests you take a webinar or online course to polish computer research; the ABA’s Center for Professional Development is a great resource.

  • While you should go to the capital for face-time, you can also arrange to sit in some meetings via conference call or Skype.

  • Consider co-chairing the working group and split your taskforce responsibilities.

  • It if looks like it will be a big time commitment, ask a co-worker to share the committee work with you.

  • Get to know the other attorneys in the field and know who you can count on to get research and writing done.

  • Recommend that the workgroup reach out to statewide and national organizations—often research has already been done on a topic and this can save you and the workgroup time. The ABA Center on Children and the Law and the Child Welfare Information Gateway are good places to start your research.

  • Consider sharing your child’s sports team responsibilities.

  • Contact a law school to get interns to help with research and drafting; offer the intern the chance to accompany you to taskforce meetings. 

  • If you don’t get what you think your county needs from the taskforce, it will still have been a good learning and networking opportunity.  

Stay tuned...

Next in the series: What goes on during the taskforce, and what research/resources are needed to see how other states are handling the topic? 

 

Sally Small Inada, MA, is marketing and communications director at the ABA Center on Children and the Law, Washington, DC.