I am a dependency law attorney. Unlike a public defender, a staff attorney at Community Legal Services or a volunteer at the Support Center for Child Advocates, I am a solo practitioner. I work every weekday at 1801 Vine St. in Philadelphia. A rough and ready definition of what I do is to work with other attorneys, the Department of Human Services and the courts to provide services to dysfunctional families in order to keep the family unit intact.
There are approximately 100 private attorneys in Philadelphia County that take dependency cases. To qualify for dependency appointments, attorneys need to complete the appropriate CLE training classes, log a certain number of hours observing dependency hearings and complete an application at the Legal Liaison’s Office. Once an attorney is on the “wheel,” cases are evenly distributed. An attorney can expect approximately one or two new cases a month.
The legal framework of dependency law is found in the Juvenile Act and the Adoptions and Safe Families Act. It takes an eight-hour CLE to be exposed to the applicable laws in the field, but it takes years to develop the skills necessary to competently apply this knowledge when representing dependency clients. The majority of the clients that I represent are poor. The primary issues that bring a dependency case to court are chemical dependency, mental health, unstable housing and school truancy. Cases can be resolved in as little as a few days or stay open for as long as a few years.
Half of the battle a dependency attorney fights is convincing the client that he is trying to help her. Once a certain level of trust is established, a dependency attorney wears many hats. I am an advocate at the bar of the court, a social worker when helping obtain services for my client and an educator where helping my client make more positive life choices. This area of law requires an attorney to be optimistic about a person’s ability to change. It is a hands-on, roll up your sleeves and get dirty type of a career that requires a high level of interaction with your clients in hopes that they do not fall through the cracks. Inevitably, some of your clients will fail or be failed by the system. Some of your clients will be destroyed by addiction, end up on the streets or even turn up dead.
So why would any attorney in their right mind want to do this kind of work? Because for every client you are unable to reach, there are a half a dozen clients that you can actually help. Working as a child advocate, an attorney can encourage a client to re-enroll in school after missing years of formal education, assist an older youth in making positive changes that may prevent teenage pregnancies or delinquencies, or simply make sure that the client is safe and their needs are being met.
By working with parents, an attorney can help a mother get into a drug program whereby she gets clean for the first time in 20 years, help a father get mental health treatment so he is no longer a danger to himself or his family or help parents obtain housing so that they can be reunited with their children. As a dependency attorney, every day I marvel at the resiliency of children and their families. I witness ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things. I cannot imagine doing anything else.
If any attorneys are interested in accepting dependency appointments, I suggest that they come to Family Court to see for themselves how the system works. You will be surprised at how willing judges, attorneys and court staff are to help provide direction to incoming dependency attorneys. I will be happy to provide a tour or answer any questions. To request an application to start accepting court appointments, attorneys should contact Marilynn Rendine at the Legal Liaison’s Office by calling 215-686-4290. My hope is that attorneys entering this field will find it as rewarding and as satisfying as I do.
JAMES MARTIN is a solo practitioner whospecializes in dependency law. He co-chairs thedependency subcommittee of the Philadelphia BarAssociation. He is on the board of directors for CASA of Philadelphia, an organization that provides volunteers to represent children in dependency hearings. Before he began his career in dependency law, he worked as assistant director of children’s services for the Salvation Army, where he managed adoptions, foster care and emergency services for children. He can be contacted by cell phone at 267-207-9772 or by e-mail at email@example.com.