September 01, 2013

One Mistake Away: An Open Look at the Attorney-Client Relationship

Claire Chiamulera

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.

Dusti Standridge and Chanda Sellars—two young women with promising futures: good families, good grades, both cheerleaders. Dusti is from East Texas and Chanda from northwestern Arkansas. Both fall in with the “wrong guy,” marry, have a baby, and their paths derail.

Dusti finds the strength to get out and get her life back on track. She divorces, gets custody of her child, finishes college, then moves to Arkansas and completes law school. Chanda spirals into a world of drugs that causes child protective services to take her children. She gets out too, in time and with help. Her saving grace? Dusti, her lawyer.

The pair shared their stories and tips for parent advocates at the Third National Parent Attorneys Conference, held July 11-12, 2013 in Washington, DC.  

Dusti started representing Chanda in December 2008, six months into the child protection case after Chanda’s court-appointed lawyer was in a car accident. During the first six months of the case, Chanda relapsed twice and had two felony charges. Her house had been seized, she had no car, her husband was sent to prison, and her children had been placed in foster care. The outlook was grim.

“When I took over for the other attorney,” Dusti recalled, “Chanda was skin and bones, amaciated, and there was nothing in her eyes. I just didn’t know what I was going to do. In my mind, six months from now we were going to be at a termination [of parental rights] hearing.” The case, one of her first as a new lawyer, made her reflect on her past. Like Chanda and many young parents like her, she had once been just one mistake away from a destructive life path. 

Dusti met with Chanda, explaining her knowledge of the case, the evidence, what Arkansas law requires, courtroom strategy, and what Chanda needed to do to get her children back. She explained her role as Chanda’s lawyer, what Chanda could expect from her, and how she would always be on her side.

With Dusti’s support, Chanda met the challenge to get her children back. At the 12-month hearing, she was in drug treatment. She completed her case plan by the next review hearing. She just needed to maintain stability and not relapse to stay on track. Six months later, her case was closed and her children were returned. 

“I call her my shining star,” Dusti told the room of parent advocates. “That’s what I call clients who make it. She’s one of the reasons that I can keep doing this and you can keep doing this.”

For Chanda, “making it” had much to do with Dusti and the relationship they had formed. While their shared backgrounds and experiences forged a bond, several characteristics defined a successful attorney-client relationship: 

Communication—meeting with the client before hearings, being available to the client, communicating openly and directly, ensuring the client understands what is happening in the case.

Listening—hearing the client’s story, addressing the client’s questions and concerns.

Preparation—reviewing the case file, gathering information, going to court prepared. 

Credibility—establishing qualifications, background and experience, professionalism and expertise.

Knowledge—showing knowledge of relevant laws, court and ethics rules, attorney practice standards, services and programs for parents.

Trust—always being there for the client, showing support in actions and in words.

Strategizing—developing a workable and realistic case strategy to reach the client’s goals. 

 

With the right supports and people to believe in them and hold them to a higher standard, many parents in the child welfare system can realize their potential. Chanda is proof.

Claire Chiamulera, CLP editor.