Inside the Courts
This is the second in a series of articles about representing children in the Dependency Branch of Family Court at 1801 Vine St. Last week, you read about the Defender Association of Philadelphia's Child Advocacy Unit (CAU), the agency that represents the vast majority of children in Dependency Court. Each year the CAU represents more than 5,000 dependent children in cases that are court-involved due to allegations of abuse, neglect or other issue 5 concerning the safety or well being of the children.
This article focuses on the work of the Support Center for Child Advocates, an agency that also represents children in Philadelphia Dependency Court. Child Advocates is the oldest pro bono children's law agency in the country. For 30 years, Child Advocates has been training lawyers and representing children in civil child welfare cases and criminal prosecutions where the child is a victim or witness. Child Advocates represents 700 children every year, relying upon private attorneys in a pro bono capacity to represent a child or sibling group. Each volunteer lawyer is paired with a Child Advocates staff social worker, creating a multi-disciplinary advocacy team.
Lawyering for children in civil child welfare cases in Philadelphia occurs at 1801 Vine St., a beautiful old building on Vine Street between 18th and 19th streets that sits next to its twin, the Philadelphia Public Library. On any given day, there are myriad professionals in the building, including lawyers, psychologists, judges and social workers, all working on behalf of Philadelphia families and children.
Children involved in civil dependency cases have a right to counsel under the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act; therefore, attorneys are court-appointed to represent this vulnerable population.
Representing a child can be an exhilarating yet daunting endeavor. The activities of a child's attorney are both similar and different from adult representation. Interviewing clients, subpoenaing witnesses, making evidentiary objections, and conducting direct and cross-examination of witnesses are activities common to legal representation regardless of the age of the client. Yet there is a realm of activities and inquiries that are unique when undertaking the representation of a child.
In addition to court hearings, there are home visits, school visits and sometimes visits to the child's therapist to participate in treatment team meetings. When representing a child, attorneys may find themselves asking questions and being concerned about areas of the client's life that they would not usually address with an adult client. Does the child have enough to eat? What is the child's living environment; is it safe? Are there toys and books? Is the child in school, at the right school, on target to finish school? Are the child's medical needs being met?
The required depth of inquiry into the child's life has come to be known as "whole child representation." As with all clients, it is important to protect the child's legal interests. With children, these interests can be multi-faceted and multi-layered. Is the child in this country legally, and if not, what can be done? Is the child receiving services in his or her own language? Does the child have children of his or her own, and what are the implications for the dependency case and for available services? Is the child now facing any juvenile charges from fights at school?
Whole child representation does not mean necessarily that an individual lawyer must take on representation of the child in a variety of arenas. At a minimum, however, it does require that the lawyer understand critical issues, so as to know when further expertise is needed to advocate effectively and navigate the various forums. For example, a lawyer representing a child in a delinquency hearing needs to have a basic understanding of how a client's plea will affect her immigration status, as well as her educational placement, in order to assist the client in making an informed choice about whether to accept the plea.
As with any client, it is imperative to develop a trusting relationship with the child. A solid relationship and knowledge of your child-client can have a positive impact on the outcome of the case. The lawyer's supportive role in child welfare cases cannot be fulfilled unless the child knows his attorney and has frequent contact with her over time. Depending upon the facts of the case, the child-attorney relationship can last two to three years. During that time, the child's attorney must strive to bring the child's voice to court. To accomplish this objective, it is imperative to understand the child's life situation. Thus, home visits - not office visits - are critical when representing a child. It is also crucial to speak to adults who know the child, including grandparents, teachers, counselors and coaches. The attorney must then translate the child's life situation into needs and services, and advocate to secure what is warranted. Necessary services usually include therapy, medical and dental intervention, and educational support.
Although not every child will be called upon to testify, an attorney must plan for this occurrence. The imposing courthouse, judges in their black robes, lawyers with questions and throngs of people can be intimidating to adults, let alone to a young and vulnerable child. Using age-appropriate language, the child's attorney must help the child understand what is happening and why it is happening, as well as prepare her to testify.
To ensure effective communication, it is important to gain an understanding of the child's use of language and names for the important people in her life. Keep in mind, interviewing children is different than interviewing adults. Language abilities, developmental issues and children's age-related difficulty with concepts of time can complicate the interview and communication process. Having an experienced social worker on the advocacy team can minimize these difficulties. A knowledgeable social worker will have an understanding of child development and possess skills necessary to interview child-clients.
Should you choose to use your legal skills to advocate for children and youth in Philadelphia's dependency system, you will see children taken from troubled families and placed in a sometimes dysfunctional child welfare system, served by a mental health and educational system fraught with inadequacies. You will work with teenagers struggling not only with adolescent angst, but multiple placements, school difficulties and a life without family.
But you will see also the universal promise of all children. You will see humor, energy, creativity, spontaneity, loyalty and resilience. You will see families that succeed against incredible odds. Despite all of the challenges, one lawyer can make a profound difference in the life of a child. Philadelphia Family Court needs skillful, creative and zealous advocates. Child Advocates hopes you will join its work at Family Court at 1801 Vine Street.
MARGUERITE C. GUALTIERI is the managing attorney at the Support Center for Child Advocates, located at 1900 Cherry S.t, Philadelphia, and can be reached at either 215- 925-1913, ext. 160 or email@example.com.