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The 3-year-old at first laughed as we played. Then, perhaps because it was time for a nap, he started to cry. His foster mother calmly lifted him from the floor and embraced him, soothing his cries and reassuring him. He rested his head on her shoulder and settled into the quiet and contentment that most sleepy children seek. His 7-year-old brother was harder to reach. He was in the middle of building a three-dimensional LEGOs helicopter. When I explained that I work for him and will take care of him, he began to open up to me. We talked about school, friends, homework and his favorite movie, Harry Potter. The foster mother interjected that he has trouble reading and must attend a tutoring program after school, which he dislikes. I made a deal with him – if he works hard at his tutoring class, I will buy him the Harry Potter book so he can read to me. He promised to work hard. As the final part of my home visit, I retreated to the nursery to check on my youngest client. When I entered his room, he jumped up and reached for me to take him out of the crib. He was clearly active, healthy and well adjusted to his new home. These children – who months before had been taken from their abusive parents – seemed safe and content in their foster home. As Evelyn Claudio, the social worker with the Support Center for Child Advocates, and I left that home visit, I mused at how much I had learned about the role of a child advocate and the needs that children have for representation when their families are at risk. Last year I signed up to be a volunteer attorney with the Support Center. After I completed the Volunteers Training Workshop and participated in a courtroom observation, volunteer coordinator Jodi Schatz presented me with a list of upcoming cases. I selected a case scheduled for a hearing just two weeks away. Although initially I thought I was on a quest to save the children from their “monstrous parents,” it was soon apparent that the case was not so cut-and-dry. There is no “saving” in this endeavor. Rather, Child Advocates protects children by securing social services, finding alternative homes and helping them testify. Prior to the first hearing for my three young clients, a brief conference was held to discuss the case. The meeting involved the biological parents, the foster mother, three social workers, three attorneys and a mediator. After 30 minutes of “he said, she said,” we all agreed that the parents needed drug and alcohol testing. At 10:30 a.m. we departed the small conference room for the large Dependency Court waiting room and our scheduled hearing. I attempted to do some billable work, but the waiting room was much more fascinating. A young girl came out of Courtroom H crying and yelling at her mother. Soon I learned that the 15-year-old girl was the child’s mother and her own mother, the child’s grandmother, had opposed returning the infant to her daughter’s care. A little later, police officers ran through the waiting room into Courtroom E. There was silence while all eyes studied the doors to Courtroom E. Soon, the officers emerged with a handcuffed, petite girl. A young man with a black eye followed. Shortly thereafter our case was called at the bar. Evelyn directed me to the chair for the child’s lawyer. Each party is assigned a specific seat in the courtroom; it’s an effective way to speed along the process. We discussed factual details, incidents of neglect and the goals for the family. As this was the parties’ first appearance in court, the goal was reunification. Reunification is often the initial goal for families – however, as time goes on and if that goal becomes impractical or impossible, the court may consider termination of parental rights so that the children may be adopted or perhaps enter long-term placement with a relative. Another hearing date was set. Between hearings, Evelyn and I worked with the Department of Human Services (DHS) social worker to keep abreast of the parents’ progress with drug treatment and parenting classes. We checked in with the foster parent on the children’s medical, emotional and behavioral progress and their visits with their parents and other relatives. Recently, we attended the second hearing. Our case was much more eventful, at least in the waiting room. The foster mother demanded that the biological parents relinquish their rights to the children. In turn, the biological mother became distressed. The DHS worker interceded to remind them that the court decides that issue. Then, counsel for the parents determined that his representation of both parents had become adverse and he chose to represent the biological mother. An immediate request was made to assign an attorney to the biological father before the hearing. By noon, the parties were friends again, as evidenced by their smoke breaks together. At 12:54 p.m., our case was called. With little noticeable progress since the last hearing, the judge demanded that the parents take steps to bring the family back together. It was clear that this judge is an optimist and strives for reunification. At the end of the hearing, however, she ordered additional drug testing. She is a realist too. Another hearing date was set. So Evelyn and I continue to work to ensure the safety of the children, monitor their progress and visits with their parents until a final solution that is in their best interest is reached. In all, it has been one of the most satisfying cases I have been involved with. For your own opportunity to share in this experience and give back to the community, sign up for the next Volunteers Training Workshop on Monday, Nov. 6, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., which provides six CLE credits. To register, call 800-932-4637. For more information visit www.advokid.org. TWINCKLE K. VAIDYA is an attorney with the firm of Rawle & Henderson.

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