Lawyers come in all shapes, sizes, and zodiac signs. One thing that all lawyers have in common is that we were once adolescents. While most of us were raised in loving homes, many American adolescents and children suffer from abuse or neglect. In California, dependency law is tailored to protect the best interest of adolescents from newborns to 21-year-olds.
Dependency proceedings are non-adversarial and non-punitive with typically three or more parties before a judge. The county counsel represents the social worker and is the person who initially petitions the court for a warrant to remove an adolescent from a parent’s custody based on the Welfare & Institutions Code.
Within 48 hours of removal, there is a hearing for continued detention or release until a trial or a settlement with findings and orders. The parent’s counsel represents one parent and advocates for release of the adolescent back to the parent’s custody when there is evidence that abusive or neglectful conditions either do not exist or have ceased. The court appoints counsel to serve as the guardian ad litem who may also represent the adolescent’s younger siblings. The minor’s counsel either asks the court to release the minor(s) back to the parent’s home or seeks continued detention with a relative or foster parent.
Here are eight reasons why you may want to serve as a minor’s counsel:
- Adolescents are part of your life. You never know what life circumstances may expose you to the opportunity to become a foster parent. Families in dependency range from low poverty levels to celebrities. It is important to be familiar with an area of law that may impact your family and friends.
- You want to develop trial skills. Most new attorneys must wait to develop trial experience. Dependency law presents contested hearings and trials. This is valuable court experience that you likely would not obtain as quickly in other practice areas.
- You want clients you actually like. The attorney-client relationship does not require you to like your clients. It simply requires that you represent their interests and advocate for them. In dependency law, you may find that you truly like your clients because they are impressionable, vulnerable, and have their whole lives ahead of them.
- You want to fulfill your social responsibility. The foster care system needs people who care about adolescents and children and have a sense of social responsibility. If you want to help a family in need and help shape a minor’s future, then dependency law may be for you.
- You are interested in policy. The dependency system is shaped by state policy. Working in this arena may inspire you to launch yourself into policy work based on your first-hand experience and sense of what reform is needed.
- You are interested in becoming a judge. In this setting, you advance your client’s interest, but you also have an independent duty to investigate the facts. It is common for an adolescent’s attorney to seek relief against his or her client’s goals if it is in the client’s best interest. This duty makes minor’s counsel neutral parties much like dependency court judges.
- You want to gain perspective. If you were fortunate to grow up in a loving home and your basic needs were met, you may not be personally familiar with childhood trauma, but you may empathize and want to help. As a minor’s counsel, you will certainly have clients whose life experiences will change your entire world perspective.
- You have overcome adversity. Adolescents need representatives who are culturally sensitive to their family experiences. The more you can understand the family dynamics as a whole, the better you can represent your client’s interest.