The Other Public Defenders
I am not sure being a public defender is ever glamorous, but to be sure there are some public defenders whose jobs are more glamorous than others. Capital defenders take on some of the highest profile cases with some of the most unsympathetic clients. They fight for their clients in cases with the highest stakes imaginable. Right behind them are the LWOP defenders.
I am not sure being a public defender is ever glamorous, but to be sure there are some public defenders whose jobs are more glamorous than others. Capital defenders take on some of the highest profile cases with some of the most unsympathetic clients. They fight for their clients in cases with the highest stakes imaginable. Right behind them are the LWOP defenders. The juvenile delinquency defenders have a different cachet, in that they represent some of our most sympathetic clients, the ones the system is most interested in helping.*
And then there are the attorneys who do maybe the most thankless job in public defense, representing parents whose children have been taken from them for alleged abuse or neglect. These attorneys work in courts with a lower standard of proof than “beyond a reasonable doubt”, navigate byzantine procedures unfamiliar to all but specialists, and handle some of the most emotionally sensitive cases imaginable, while representing clients many in the general public would like to see pilloried.
The child welfare system often operates invisibly. Many lay people may have little understanding that it even exists, and if they do they know only that the court can pull children from their parents and put them in foster care. The ultimate sanction in child welfare court is the decision to “terminate parental rights”, which is a decision by a court that a family before them ought not exist. Which powers does the state have that are greater than the power to utterly and irreversibly destroy a family?
In Louisiana, some of the most skilled and dedicated attorneys I know specialize in representing parents in the child welfare system. They know that even dysfunctional families often function much better than do foster homes. They know that even parents who have made grave mistakes love their children dearly and are devastated at losing them, embarrassed at being told they are inadequate to raise them. They know that good representation often means the difference between preserving a family and destroying one. They know that courts and state agencies sometimes fall into the trap of punishing a parent for bad behavior rather than doing what is best for the children whose fates they hold in balance. They know that courts often mistakenly believe that foster care is the safe choice, when a parent cannot assure the court or state agency that a child will not miss a day of school or a doctor's appointment.
When a child is removed from his or her home, the child is placed in foster care. On average, there are about 400,000 children in foster care nationwide, some for a few days and some for many years. Most will either be reunited with parents or will go to live permanently with a member of extended family, while some will be adopted by a different family. The median length of a foster care placement nationwide is about two years. The unfortunate few will languish in foster care until they “age out” and are on their own, usually at 18 with few resources. This will account for roughly 10% of the children who leave foster care. Children aging out of foster care are more likely to end up homeless or incarcerated, more likely to have an early pregnancy, less likely to have a high school or college degree, or steady employment. Even while in foster care, the circumstances are often bad. Child abuse and child death are more common in foster care than outside of it. Many children experience multiple changes in placement and frequent changes of caregiver, leading to attachment problems and frequent adjustments to new household rules and severing the child's ties to family and community. Teenagers in foster care, frequently rebellious and separated from loved ones, usually are warehoused in group homes, cared for by employees, an environment that is not conducive to nurturing. Most of these children were not abused at home, but were simply neglected. Perhaps the parent worked two jobs and was unable to properly supervise them and also sleep. Perhaps the parent had an untreated mental illness that interfered with parenting. Perhaps the parent was a victim of a biased and overburdened child welfare agency that failed to see her strong qualities. Perhaps the parent was a victim of an overzealous state apparatus that said parents can no longer decide when their children are old enough to play unsupervised, or that leaving a child in a car is unsafe even if the child is old enough to get out of the car and the weather is cool.
These clients are often invisible, shielded by a confidential court procedure, a procedure that also often shields the system from scrutiny. These attorneys operate quietly, sometimes challenging a removal, or sometimes working to rehabilitate a parent through services, endless pep talks, and rallying family supports. Sometimes the parent needs mental health treatment. Sometimes the parent needs drug treatment. Sometimes the parent needs to figure out how to jettison an abusive partner. Sometimes the parent just needs a reliable babysitter, preferably one that is free. A parents' attorney brings a specialized legal skill set together with a specialized communications skill set to help these parents navigate the complicated and interlocking court and agency systems to help them keep their families together.
When we talk about public defense, we should not forget these defenders. They do work that is as valuable, difficult, and essential to checking the awesome power of the state.
* Or, more to the point, least interested in hurting.