To Social Media or Not; That is the Question

Some attorneys advise their clients to completely avoid social media when they are involved in juvenile court (or even family law court sometimes). While there are good reasons for that, I don’t take that position with my clients, for the following reasons:[1] First, most clients are going to ignore that advice, so I think it’s better to simply offer suggestions to minimize the potentially negative effects. Second, in this day and age, social media is how people stay connected, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, or any of the other platforms. Complete abstention can create feelings of isolation, which are rarely helpful, especially when people are struggling with challenges (which they obviously are if they are in juvenile court).

Although not all-inclusive, following are my top 10 tips to protect yourself from the negative aspects of social media, while boosting the positive ones.

  1. Privacy Settings – This is very, very important. Make sure your social media isn’t wide open to everyone who comes looking. DHS workers, attorneys, and others involved with your case may be looking for information about you on social media. Sometimes this is benign or even helpful (say, for example, if you forget to update your attorney when you change your phone number and she needs to reach you), but other times, people are looking for less-than-flattering information that may be used against you. While there are certain ethical rules on what these professionals can and can’t do, generally speaking there’s nothing saying they can’t look at a public profile. I would suggest changing accounts to private, or in the case of Facebook, restrict access to friends (not even “friends of friends”).
  2. Make sure friends really are friends—We’ve all gotten those friend requests from people who appear to have a “mutual” friend with us. Their profile picture looks respectable, so we figure they’re ok. But I always tell people that if you don’t know them, don’t friend them, regardless of whom their “mutual” friends are. If you think it’s someone you just don’t remember (say, a former high school classmate), you can send a personal message to the “mutual” friend and ask who it is. If they say, “I don’t really know—I just accepted their friend request them because they are friends with [name],” you should not accept their friend request.
  3. Friends of Friends setting — The above reasoning is why I also don’t suggest setting your privacy settings to “friends of friends,” at least not while your case is active. You have no idea who these “friends of friends” are, or who they might know.
  4. Your Case — Please do not share details of your case on social media. While you have an attorney-client privilege with your attorney, you may, practically speaking, destroy that if you share all those conversations and details on social media. Additionally, do not share any frustrations or criticisms about DHS, the judge, the other parent, or anyone else involved with your case on social media. Trust me on this one—it will not help you, and has the potential to really create a lot of problems for you. Save those conversations for your attorney, where they are protected by the attorney-client privilege (but don’t be a constant complainer, either).
  5. Photos — There may be some very good reasons why you might not want to share photos of your child on social media (e.g., protecting them from pedophiles and traffickers). But if you decide to share, I would suggest sharing photos that show a positive, loving relationship and good parenting. For example, playing at the playground, reading to your child, attending family events (picnics, etc.), or school events will all portray you and your relationship in a good light to whoever may be looking. But I would suggest not including any identifying information, or location of places the child routinely is, such as school. So you might say something like, “so much fun attending my daughter’s graduation from preschool! Really proud of her.” You haven’t provided your child’s name, nor have you provided her school name or location. Don’t “check in” at the event, either. And as a side note, please make sure you’re not posting photos of other children without their parent’s permission.
  6. Photos Part Two — Be very, very careful about posting photos of yourself (or being tagged in photos that others take—check your privacy settings) at parties or other places (e.g., gambling casinos) that might raise eyebrows with your DHS worker. That also goes for behavior that might not portray you in the best light, even if the location is not problematic (e.g., a photo of you at home, but drunk). This is true even if your child is not with you at the time.
  7. Posts — If your friends and family are aware of, for example, a substance use disorder you have, you can post milestones, such as, “Today is my 100th day of sobriety!” and bask in the congratulations and encouragement that come in. This is a positive milestone that, even if someone involved in your case sees, will help you, not hurt you. I would strongly urge you to not post information about any relapse. Not because your team won’t find out (they almost always will), but because that’s not how you want them to find out. Save your posts for positive things you are doing, and the progress you are making.
  8. 140 Characters — Many people have lost jobs or relationships because of misunderstandings due to Twitter’s character restrictions. And even if there’s not misunderstanding as to content, there may still be a problem with tone or intention. To me, Twitter is much more negative, harsh, and used as a place to vent and tear down than the other platforms. This is one you might want to take a break from. When I took a 40-day “sabbatical” from Twitter, I was amazed at how much better I felt. Now I am only on rarely, and for very short periods of time. I do not miss it, though I did at the beginning of the 40-day abstinence.
  9. Positive feeds — I have three Facebook pages: my personal page where I “hang out” with friends and family, my Case Navigator™ page, and my Jean M. Baker Law Office page. SnapChat is reserved for pictures my kids send me, LinkedIn is for professional, work-related posts, and Twitter can just be vile sometimes (especially if you are following a lot of political people). When I added Instagram, I made a conscious choice that that was going to be my “happy place.” I only follow a very small circle of positive people and organizations. It’s where I find some great, positive, encouraging things, beautiful photos, and people sharing happy events. I do not allow political posts, or negative ones. During this stressful time for you, I would suggest that you liberally use the “unfollow” button (you don’t have to unfriend people, and they don’t know), and that you seek out positive people and organizations. This is also true of your boards and searches on Pinterest. Filling your mind with encouraging, beautiful things and removing the negative ones is proven to have a positive effect on your mental health.
  10. Use common sense — It is almost never a good thing to post when you are angry or upset. While it’s true you can delete a post, it is also true that screen shots can allow posts to live forever. If you ask yourself what might happen and your answer is, “I don’t even care,” (especially if there’s an expletive in there), DON’T POST IT. If it is critical of one of the professionals involved in your case (DHS, the judge, etc.), DON’T POST IT. If it shows you drinking heavily, gambling, or using (or at an “event” with people who are doing those things), DON’T POST IT. If it shows you making bad or questionable parenting choices, DON’T POST IT.

Hopefully this helps you make decisions about what to post, where, when, and how. Remember—those decisions are up to you; this post is just designed to help you think through those decisions. And while I don’t claim to be a tech guru, if you have basic questions about privacy settings, feel free to email me at Jean.Baker@CaseNavigatorIowa.com, and I will be happy to help you or suggest someone who can.

And, of course, you can always Google it. 😉

[1] As always, this post should not be construed as legal advice. Talk to your attorney or the attorney of your choice if you have questions or need legal advice.

Working with DHS

As most people know, DHS has been in the news a lot lately—and not for good reasons. Following the starvation deaths of Natalie Finn last fall and Sabrina Ray more recently, Iowans—and their representatives—have been outraged. While the death of these girls is horrific, of course, it is important to know the facts and how they might (or might not) apply in your case.

First, both girls had been adopted out of foster care. Once a child is adopted, there is no oversight by DHS, the courts, or anyone else. That is not true when a child is in foster care, either during a CINA case or pre-adoption. If your child has been removed and placed in foster care, there is pretty significant oversight. DHS, FSRP, and (if one is appointed) CASA are doing regular visits, as is the guardian ad litem. The court is involved, there may be family team meetings, and in most cases, the biological parents (you) have visitation. And remember—the child can only be adopted if your parental rights are terminated. If you do what the courts and DHS are asking you to do, it is highly unlikely anyone would be suggesting termination.

Second, while politicians likely do care about what happens to kids, they also often have their own agenda—reelection. This means that things get exaggerated, and often to catch the media’s attention. Again, that doesn’t mean they don’t care about your kids—it just means they have a parallel motive. But just because they are publicly calling for resignations and criticizing DHS in very strong terms doesn’t mean you should be fighting with your DHS worker. Keep in mind that the politicians are criticizing the organization; if they criticize individuals, they are criticizing those in positions of power and authority with DHS—not, by and large, individual workers, which is who you will have contact with.

Third, although you have the greatest control over the outcome of your case, DHS obviously plays a significant role. You are in control of complying with what DHS and the Court asks you to do, but it is DHS who makes recommendations (that may or may not be approved by the court) s to what those services will be. They also recommend, based upon your actions, whether to reunify your family or terminate parental rights. Knowing that, it makes more sense to work with DHS than fight with them.

So here are 10 tips for successfully working with your DHS worker:

  1. Do your very best to comply with what they are asking you to do. If they “recommend” that you go to therapy, go to therapy. Exercise visitation (without creating problems at the visitation). Don’t use drugs. Don’t violate no-contact orders (in cases with domestic violence).
  2. Make sure your DHS worker (and everyone else on your team, including your lawyer) has your current contact information. If you move or change your phone number, let them know. It’s very important that they be able to contact you.
  3. Attend all hearings and family team meetings. Put them on the calendar, on a big piece of paper stuck to the refrigerator, or ask your attorney. Don’t guess, and don’t skip it. If a conflict arises, contact your attorney right away and ask her to help you resolve the issue.
  4. If your DHS worker is recommending (or suggesting without saying it outright) that you do something that contradicts what your attorney or a medical professional advises, talk to your attorney immediately about that. For example, I’ve heard reports recently that DHS is leading parents to believe that they will not recommend reunification if the parent is taking methadone or Suboxone. Their doctors, however, are stating that they need to be taking it for at least a year in order for it to work. The parent finds him- or herself in a difficult position. Sometimes they try to stop the methadone or Suboxone and end up relapsing. Clearly, that’s not good. Talk to your attorney if you find yourself in this position.
  5. DHS workers often have very heavy caseloads. This means that they cannot always get back to you right away. If it’s urgent, call your lawyer, and tell him what the problem or question is, that you have tried to call DHS, but haven’t heard back. Your attorney is there to advocate for you, so don’t hesitate to call him when necessary. That doesn’t mean call him for every little thing, but it does mean that it’s better to call than to simply not comply.
  6. Don’t verbally (or physically, of course) abuse your worker. Saying things to them like, “my child is going to be starved or abused in foster care” (at removal, for example) will not help you. Remember—while the CINA case is going on, there will be significant oversight and DHS/FSRP/CASA/Court contact with your child.
  7. Related to that—if you know of relatives who might be suitable placements for your child(ren), share that with DHS. A non-custodial parent, grandparents, aunts/uncles, and even, on occasion, adult siblings might be a good choice. And if there are no relatives, there may be an adult with whom the child has a good relationship that would be suitable. This might be a coach, Big Brother/ Big Sister volunteer, or someone from church. Not everyone will be able or willing to do this, and DHS may or may not approve them, but it doesn’t hurt to make the suggestion.
  8. Treat your worker with respect. I understand that you are or may be afraid, angry, or feeling many other “high emotions,” but giving (loud) voice to those emotions does not usually help you. Keep your focus on what is best for the kids. If you have an attorney (which you may not have at the time of removal, which is also the time when emotions are running highest), let her fight those battles.
  9. If you are asked to do a drug test, DHS may require you to test even if you tell them it will be “dirty.” There’s really no point in arguing with them about it—just do the test. Sometimes DHS will require you to do it because they need to know what you are taking. For example, some parents will say they will test positive for marijuana (which may or may not be true), but they will actually test for heroin.
  10. Be honest. If DHS asks whether a drug test will be positive, don’t say you’re clean if you know you’re not. This just harms your credibility when the drug test comes back positive. Don’t say you’re clean in the hopes that the drug you took won’t show up. It probably will. In the case of relapse, it’s better to admit it and then go on to emphasize what you have done to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Whether it’s about substances or something else, the truth will usually come out; if you have been less than honest, that will only hurt you.

DHS workers are not bad people whose goal is to take your kids away from you. They are people who became social workers in order to help people. They care about your kids and want what is best for them. They also want you to succeed, because reunification is usually (though not always) best for everyone involved. Like any profession, some workers are better than others. But I have yet to meet a worker who doesn’t want what is best for kids (even if I disagree with her assessment of what that means).

But DHS workers also have heavy caseloads and a lot of paperwork. They don’t have much control over either of those things, so they do the best they can. I’m not saying that’s ok—I’m saying that’s the reality right now. There are people (including politicians) who are working very hard to make changes that will have a positive impact, but this will not happen overnight. Your case might be over before they make any changes. But if you follow the tips above, your experience with DHS will be much more positive, and you will be more likely to have a good outcome.

And isn’t that the goal?

Problem Solving

One of the most well-known pieces of general business advice is that to be a problem solver; if you can solve a problem someone has, you will make money.

But this isn’t only true in business, or in the narrow outcome of making money. In juvenile CINA cases, the biggest problem for children is that they have been separated from their parents—the people they usually love most in the world. Now, the parents have underlying problems that have created this “umbrella” problem of separation, but those aren’t the child’s problems. In other words, if a child was removed because a parent was using drugs, the drug use is the parent’s problem, and the separation is the child’s (although, of course, the separation is also the parent’s problem).

Too often, parents believe that someone else has the power to solve that problem. DHS can recommend reunification, the attorney can “fight” for it, and the court can order it, for example. But while those three things are true, they are only true if the parent has solved his or her problems. If substance abuse was the cause of the removal, then the parent must get healthy; if s/he doesn’t, DHS will not recommend reunification, the attorney has not grounds on which to “fight” for reunification, and the court will not order it.

Ultimately, then, it’s up to the parent to solve the problem.

I often tell parents that in no other area of (litigation) law does the client (i.e., the parent) have as much control over the outcome as they do in juvenile court. It rarely feels like that, because so many people are telling them to “go here, do this…” But the reality is—if the parent will substantially comply with everything DHS and the court is asking him or her to do, they will almost always get their children back.

But only the parent can decide whether to comply with those requirements. Only the parent can attend therapy, go to substance abuse treatment, exercise visitation, etc. DHS can’t “make” them do those things, and even the court cannot “force” them to (although the court has the power to make it very, very painful if they do not).

It’s up to the parent to make that decision and commitment and to follow through.

To paraphrase Art Williams, I’m not saying it will be easy. I’m saying it will be worth it. Kids want to be with their biological parents, even when those parents are not perfect (and no parent is perfect). But they can’t solve that problem. Only the parents can.

 

 

 

 

Say Hello!

As many of you know, Case Navigator™ did not survive this legislative session. Although I am told it would have been highly unlikely for a first-year bill to pass (especially in this particularly contentious budget year), it was still disappointing.

However, I am not giving up on it.

During this interim year, I have reactivated my law license and will be doing court-appointed juvenile CINA law. This will give me an up close and personal look at the system/process through the eyes of an attorney (and a better “view” from the client’s perspective).

I am doing more research on addictions (the highest contributor to CINA removals).

Legislative Action:

  • Rewriting the bill
  • Developing a strong business plan in a format that is familiar to stakeholders
  • Meeting with a number of legislators
  • Getting the bill pre-filed
  • Developing a small body of informal “research” testing my theories about what works in juvenile court so I have some “evidence” that what I say will work or make a difference will work and make a difference.

And here’s something else. In the last nine (9) months, there have been two “child” deaths in Iowa: Natalie Finn in West Des Moines, and Sabrina Ray in Perry. Interestingly, immediately following both of those deaths, my Case Navigator Facebook page had a significant increase in hits. The problem is, I don’t know who’s looking or why.

May I ask a favor?

If you “stop by” my Facebook page or my website, would you reach out and let me know? If you have questions, I’d be happy to answer them as best I can. If you have ideas or know people I should meet that might lead to passage of the bill authorizing case navigators next year, I’d love to hear about that as well.

However, I’m not interested in advancing anyone’s political agenda on the backs of these families. What I am interested in is solving the problem(s). So if you’re looking for a political “advocate,” keep looking. But if you’re looking to help me make Case Navigator™ the best service it can be, to help families, then please feel free to connect with me, instead of just looking.

Regrouping, Refocusing, and Doing Whatever it Takes

As most of you know, I started on this journey to establish Case Navigator™ last April, after a chance encounter outside Judge Witt’s courtroom, followed by a little “I wonder…” kind of thinking, and then a coffee meeting with Magdalena Reese, juvenile law attorney extraordinaire.

The journey thus far has allowed me to meet lots of great advocates for children and parents. It has shown me obstacles I never knew existed for parents—and the professionals who serve them. It has provided insight into how the legislative process works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be). It has forced me to fight with the IRS about something that is so simple as to boggle the mind (and unfortunately brought out a side of me I did not know existed. I learned I will, when pushed to the brink of agency idiocy, actually yell (but not swear) at people on the phone).

And I learned a very difficult lesson about not checking the information I am given.

When the bill was first filed, a colleague with legislative experience told me it was an appropriations bill, not subject to the normal funneling deadlines. There was no reason I shouldn’t have been able to rely on that, except that it was wrong. Although there was a provision for appropriations in the bill, it was not an appropriations bill. I didn’t get the correct information until after the first funneling deadline. And by then, it was too late. I nearly hyperventilated. All that work—gone in an instant because of incorrect information.

I was not angry with my colleague. I was mad at myself for not taking the simple step of double-checking what I was being told, about a process I knew nothing about. That’s my responsibility. I dropped the ball.

When I first discovered my mistake, I allowed myself only one day to rant, feel sorry for myself, and generally throw a pity party. Then I picked myself up and tried to salvage the bill by getting it re-filed as an appropriations bill. I also developed a “concurrent plan” in case I wasn’t successful in re-filing. I looked at a lot of different options, and then decided that my best option would be to reopen my law office, focusing on juvenile CINA cases. And in this extremely tight budget year, the bill was not re-filed, so I find myself forced to go to Plan B.

Interestingly, at a model court training session last week, I listened to experienced juvenile court attorneys express their frustrations about the process. All I could think was, “Case Navigator™ would solve that problem. Case Navigator™ would solve THAT problem, too.” And yes, I felt a bit of resentment that a bill that could solve so many problems for parents and the professionals that serve them was not passed.

I was also told that it would have been extremely unlikely that my bill (or nearly any bill like mine) would have passed in the first year. I was also told it was a good candidate for passage in year two. Will I rely on that? No. I will work as if that’s not true, and not rely on any false sense of “entitlement.”

After a bit of emotional and mental “space,” I asked myself, “What good can come of this?” As you might imagine, I resisted this initially. I was focused on the good that wouldn’t be realized because of the failure to pass this bill. But gradually I forced myself away from that (what good can come of dwelling on what isn’t to be?), and tried instead to think of what good could come of it. I realized that although I was familiar with the court process because of my CASA experience and my law degree generally, there would be valuable insights provided by actually practicing law in juvenile court. I would have even more credibility with legislators and others after practicing in juvenile court. I also decided that I would set a financial goal of earning enough money to self-fund the tech piece so I didn’t have to borrow that money. Even if I don’t earn enough in this year to completely fund it, every dollar I set aside is one less dollar I have to borrow (and repay with interest).

So here’s the plan: I will work very hard this year to do everything in my power to get Case Navigator™ passed in the next legislative session. I will meet with legislators across the state. I will familiarize myself with the legislative process so that I do not fail because of ignorance. And I will practice law in juvenile court so I can learn as much as possible from that perspective.

Failure is only permanent if you give up. I have no intention of giving up—this is too important.

Thank you to everyone who supported me this year. I hope I can count on your encouragement and support in this coming year as well.

 

The Task List

One of the problems I see in juvenile court is that we ask our parents to do a lot of things—very challenging things, given their situation—but we don’t make it easy to succeed. For example, their “to-do” list might pull things from a court order, a DHS case plan, and family team meeting notes, among others. Not only that, but all of those documents have a lot of other information (much of it written in legalistic/social worker language), as well as including things other people on their team are going to do.

All of this means that parents—who are already traumatized from having their kids removed—now have to sift through all these sources of information, figure out what their part is, figure out what, exactly they are being asked to do, figure out how to do it, and then actually do it (which can also be challenging if they have transportation issues or a job that makes it difficult to get time off during the week).

Case Navigator™ helps to alleviate this challenge by creating one monthly task list, pulled from all the sources (orders, DHS case plans, FTM notes), and limited to only what the parent is to do. The monthly task list is divided into three sections: critical tasks, important tasks, and agreements.

  • Critical Tasks include only three things: therapy, substance abuse treatment, and visitation. If the parent is not on track with any of these tasks (assuming they are ordered in their case), an alert is sent to the attorney so s/he can follow up if necessary. This helps keep the client on track, and it also prevents the attorney from being “surprised” to learn at the hearing that his/her client has not been complying with the order or case plan.
  • Important tasks are those that are important, but not one of the critical three. Noncompliance with these does not trigger an alert. Often, these are “one-off” things that don’t really have a deadline. For example, “apply for WIC” is something that might go here. “Schedule the child’s doctor appointment” is another example. There is no limit to the number of things that can be on this list, or how long a particular item is on the list (though if it’s on for several consecutive months, follow up may be needed to determine why this hasn’t been done, or whether it’s no longer necessary/relevant).
  • Agreements are items that are important, but they are typically things that are ongoing and would have to be measured in the negative. For example, “Comply with your criminal no contact order” is obviously important, but, as the saying goes, it’s hard to measure a negative. “Remain substance abuse free” is another example.

The benefits of this letter are several. First, it makes it easier for the client to know what they are expected to do, which in turn makes it easier to comply with what they’re being asked to do. They are not as likely to miss something because it’s buried within a lot of legalese or a big report. Second, it helps the other professionals spot a potential problem much earlier, allowing them to be more proactive in helping their client get back on track faster. Third, it helps therapists focus on helping their client work on what’s most important. And if parents need more information, they can still go back to the original documents. This list doesn’t replace those documents, it just consolidates the critical “to do” pieces into one easy-to-understand document.

The point of all the “asks” is to help parents get healthy and be a better parent. The point isn’t to measure whether or not they can read an order, DHS Case Plan, or FTM notes and then synthesize all that information into a list. If we can help parents know and understand what is being asked of them so they can do the actual work they’re being asked to do, we help them become successful.

And isn’t that ultimately what we all want for them—and their children?

Natalie Finn

Last August, a teenaged girl in West Des Moines named Natalie Finn died of starvation. This was not a case of poverty—it was child abuse. The parents were later charged with multiple felonies; there was the predictable outrage, followed by an “investigation” (a/k/a, the search to find someone to blame). The usual suspects were rounded up—DHS, of course, but also the school, the Department of Education, the police… Ms. Finn was 16-years-old, which is the age at which kids can legally drop out of school, which initially seemed to get the school off the hook. But then it was reported that Ms. Finn and her siblings were home-schooled. This, of course, brought in the DOE, where it was discovered that if parents elect to home-school with no services, the DOE does not track them. At all. And while that might not be a problem for caring, conscientious parents, it is, unfortunately, a good place for abusive parents to hide.

It also turns out that a neighbor had called in to report her concerns, as had the school nurse (when Ms. Finn was still in school), and the school. The police had gone to the home as well, but were denied entry. According to the Des Moines Register, an order was requested to go into the home for a welfare check (the paper was a little fuzzy as to what, exactly, happened after that, but it sounds like the order was granted and the police went in. The only thing really reported about the visit itself was that it was “apparent” the children had been coached not to talk to investigators).

Senator McCoy believes that if multiple reports are made about the same child/family, that DHS should investigate, even if the reports do not, standing alone, meet DHS’ criteria for further investigation. While I don’t disagree with that, it appears that in this case, there was at least some follow-up, going to the point of obtaining a court order for a formal “visit.”

He also believes that adoptive families who adopt and receive adoptive subsidies should be subject to some oversight. I do not particularly agree with this stance; it strikes me as overly intrusive, and a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. It also ignores the fact that only non-relative adoptions receive subsidies, which means that a relative adoption would not be subject to oversight. Finally, from a legal standpoint, an adoptive parent has the same rights as a biological parent. This would presumably include not being “followed” by the government to see if you are abusing the child they agreed you were competent to safely adopt unless there were good reasons for that oversight. Receiving subsidies is probably not a good enough reason.

Although not in this article, Senator McCoy has also suggested better oversight of home-schooled kids. I also agree with this, though again, let’s be sure we’re not going overboard, punishing good parents. Let’s find a reasonable middle ground.

There are also differing views as to whether DHS workers are overworked, or that their caseloads are too heavy. While I do not have the “data” on this issue, my sense as a CASA is that yes, the DHS workers have too much on their plate. But it’s not just how much, but what. When I look at their reports (as a CASA coach, I see the DHS reports to the court), it strikes me that there is a lot of time going into preparing these reports, but they do not always provide a clear picture of what’s going on.

Let me take a side road for a minute.

In business, mistakes are not only tolerated, but often encouraged. The thought is that you learn and grow when you make mistakes. Innovation comes from trying new things; they either work, or you learn something important to take forward. But in child welfare, the stakes of making a mistake are too high. Mistakes can result in a child’s death.

Understandably, then, DHS workers feel the pressure to get it right every single time. And when they don’t, everyone piles on and accuses them of terrible things. Instead of actually learning from what happened, though, new policies are put into place, often at the insistence of the legislature; new paperwork, more “i’s” to dot and “t’s” to cross. Instead of helping, though, this actually pulls workers away from working with the families, and forces them to instead spend more time doing paperwork.

And then if something terrible happens, they can say, “I did everything I was supposed to do. I dotted the ‘i’s’ and crossed the ‘t’s.’ You can’t blame me. “ In short, all of these new policies do nothing little to actually make children safer; they serve primarily to add more layers of “CYA.”

As most of you know, I own a business called Case Navigator™, which is designed to work with parents in juvenile court. Some have asked whether my services could have prevented the Natalie Finn tragedy and others like it. And the answer is this: not directly. But indirectly? Yes.

It would not have helped directly, because Case Navigator™ helps parents whose children have been removed and who are involved with the court system. Natalie Finn would not have been known to Case Navigator™. The family’s involvement with the court was limited to the request for an order for a formal visit—not a removal or an adjudication.

So if Case Navigator™ would not have even been aware of Natalie Finn, how could it have helped indirectly?

By lightening the load of DHS, in order to reduce the likelihood of mistakes or missed problems.

The primary pushback I hear from people is that my service is duplicative. As an initial matter, I would note that this applies only to the teaching pieces, because the monthly task list and the tech piece are not things DHS has or does. But if DHS workers are even half as overworked as they claim to be, they are not likely spending much time on the teaching pieces. From what I’ve seen as a CASA, they are not doing this consistently or well. That’s not to say they don’t do other things well, nor is it to say that no one is doing it well; just that it would be better if someone else with the time to do a more thorough, comprehensive, and consistent job would take over this piece.

Even if you believe they are doing no teaching (raising the question, “how would Case Navigator™ taking over this part lighten their load if they’re not doing it anyway?”) they will spend less time explaining other things to the parent, because now the parent has a much better foundation of knowledge on which to base these higher level things.

In addition to the teaching pieces, Case Navigator™ provides a monthly task list. The monthly task list is a clear, concise way to keep everyone on the same page. It pulls tasks from multiple locations (that everyone on the team (whether parent, DHS, attorneys, or others) currently has to sort through) and places them in one place. It pulls out only what the client is to do (making it easier to “comply” with their case plan, orders, and FTM notes and work with their therapist, if one is ordered). And it specifically tracks those designated as critical tasks (therapy, substance abuse treatment, and visitation), sending an alert to the attorney if the parent has gotten off track with any one of these. This lightens the load for DHS because they now have a more concise, streamlined list to work off of. They’re not flipping through multiple reports/orders/notes, sorting through tasks assigned to others on the team, in order to talk to the parent about his/her responsibilities. And there are alerts that encourage follow-up by other team members as well, reducing the chance of things falling through the cracks.

The contacts page makes it easier for everyone on the team to find up-to-date information. Clients only have to update in one place, instead of calling/texting/ emailing multiple people on the team to provide the new information. This lightens the load for DHS because now they are not spending as much time tracking down this information, and they are also no longer receiving calls from other members of the team asking for this information. Everyone can access it from the site.

The push notifications to clients mean that DHS doesn’t have to send out reminder emails to the client; these are automated through Case Navigator™.

All of this means that DHS can spend time on the things that have the greatest impact—working with the families to more accurately determine when children need to be removed, and then working with them to safely reunify the kids in a timely manner (or not, if the children cannot be safely returned home).

And then maybe somebody can tackle the paperwork problem…

The Why and the How of SF79

As many of you know, Senate File 79 is the bill proposing funding for Case Navigator™. By their nature, bills are written fairly broadly. They tell you what is being proposed, but don’t always explain why (i.e., the benefits of enacting that particular bill) or the how (the details). In this case, the

In this case, the why actually has three parts:

  • It helps families safely reunify faster and avoid termination of parental rights (TPR);
  • It makes the job of the professionals who serve on the family’s team easier, more efficient and more effective; and
  • It has the potential to save the state a significant amount of money.[1]

So how does Case Navigator™ do these things?

Helping families safely reunify faster and avoid TPR

  • I’ve written elsewhere about the teaching parts of Case Navigator™, and how they can reduce the anxiety clients are feeling, allowing them to focus on higher-level issues, make better decisions, and have better outcomes. I’ll not rehash that here.
  • The technology piece helps them stay on track in the following ways:
    • Parents are asked to do a lot of things in order to get their kids back. And these requirements come from multiple sources: the court, DHS, Family Team Meetings (“FTMs”), and the Family Safety Risk Permanency (“FSRP”) worker, to name a few. Case Navigator™ pulls the tasks from each source and puts them in one easily accessible place. Additionally, it includes only what the parent is to do, not what others are “assigned” (e.g., if the FSRP worker is to do something for them, that might show up on the FTM notes, but it will not show up on the client task list that Case Navigator™ creates).
    • The “critical tasks” part of the list is measured and triggers a notification to the attorney if the client is not compliant so that the attorney can follow up and get the client back on track, instead of finding out about it at the hearing.
    • The date of their next hearing and next FTM is at the top of every screen (other than the login), so they can easily access that information. And it doesn’t get lost in a calendar of other events and appointments.
    • There is one place where they can access their documents, their task list, contact information for their team, and resources.
    • They can easily update their information in one place that the team can access, making communication easier.
  • When parents substantially comply with their orders and case plans, they are much more likely to get their kids back. Compliance also means that they are attending therapy and substance abuse treatment (if ordered), so they are growing and improving, getting healthy and stronger. In other words—becoming better parents.

Makes the job of the professionals easier

  • The teaching piece helps the professionals because Case Navigator™ is taking care of the foundational teaching and logistics information, which means that the other professionals can now focus on the higher level issues that they are uniquely qualified to do.
  • The technology piece saves time and effort
    • FTM Facilitators can directly upload their meeting notes to the site, instead of emailing them to everyone, which risks missing some team members.
    • The team can access critical documents easily, no matter where they are.
    • Because parents only have to update their information once, it saves team members time calling around trying to track down new contact information (i.e., now when a client changes her phone number, she has to call multiple people (attorney, DHS, FSRP, CASA, etc. With the Case Navigator™ technology, she only has to update in one place, and the entire team will have access to the updated information).
    • The push notification to clients relieves the professionals of constant reminders about the upcoming hearing. And it’s less likely that a client will miss a hearing, because of these three reminders (one week prior, the day before, the day of). If the client has a conflict, he can reply “H” for help, and the attorney can follow up.
    • Blank forms reside on the site so that clients can access and complete them easily.
    • All the critical documents and contacts reside in one place instead of multiple systems, some of which the professionals may not have access to.
    • Case Navigator™ will train the client on the system.

Has the potential to save a significant amount of money.

  • Reunifying families saves the state money in three primary ways:
    • If a parent’s rights are terminated, they frequently appeal that decision, which means increased legal fees incurred by the state (because most parents have a court-appointed attorney). If their parental rights are not terminated, there is obviously no appeal.
    • If a parent’s rights are terminated, there are often significant pre-adoption foster care subsidies (assuming a non-relative placement).
    • If a child is adopted, there may be significant adoptive subsidies (again, assuming a non-relative placement) that can continue until the child reaches the age of majority. This is especially true if the child has special needs.
  • Reducing the frequency of things that contribute to continuances (e.g., “forgetting” a hearing, necessitating a reschedule, inconsistent compliance) means that reunification can occur faster without compromising safety. This means lower legal fees and lower foster care subsidies (with the bonus of shorter time in an out-of-home placement for the child).

All of this means that the process is more effective and more efficient for everyone—parents, children, and the professionals who serve them.

Have questions about any of this? Give me a call or shoot me an email—I’d be happy to talk to you about it.

[1] While this would not likely result in lowering your taxes, it would mean that we can serve more families for the same amount of money.

Clarification – Part 2

Last week, I gave an overview, clarifying some of the things I’m hearing about Case Navigator. And now the “conversations.”

And now the “conversations.”

Question/Comment: You talk about the “team” having access to documents, contacts, and resources. Who is on the team?

Response: The team consists of the client/parent, the attorneys (including the Guardian ad Litem, the parents’ attorneys and the county attorney), the DHS worker, the FSRP worker, CASA, and Case Navigator™. This may change depending on the dynamics of the case. For example, if there is domestic abuse between the parents, that might change how the “team” is configured in order to protect the individual being abused.

 

Question/Comment: How do you define a “case”? How is your definition different from that of DHS or the courts?

Response: In court, a case is defined as one child. In Case Navigator™, a case is one family. That means that DHS’ records might show Case Navigator™ serving many more “cases” than 50. For example, if one family has four kids, DHS’ records would show four cases. Case Navigator’s™ records would show one. If every family that Case Navigator™ served had four kids, Case Navigator’s™ records would show 50 cases, while DHS’ records would show 200. There are a number of good reasons for counting this differently; if you would like to know more about this, please contact me, and I will be happy to explain my thinking.

 

Question/Comment: SF79 states that there will be a cap of 50 cases during the Pilot Program

Response: This is a small clarification that needs to be made in the language of the bill itself. The dollars requested in the bill are accurate, but the numbers are not. There will be no more than 50 cases in any given month. But if one month has 50 cases, and then one drops off, another can be added the next month. In other words, at the end of the two-year pilot program, Case Navigator™ will have likely served many more than 50 families total; but no more than 50 in any given month.

 

Question/Comment: Who does Case Navigator™ serve, specifically?

Response: Case Navigator™ serves the team, by providing a place for everyone (other than the court) to go to get consistent, current information.

Case Navigator™ serves the parents in three primary ways:

  • Teaching – helping parents understand the terms, acronyms, logistics, procedural issues and expectations so that they can focus on the higher-level legal, mental health, social work, etc. issues.
  • Personal Accountability – providing parents with the tools (e.g., the task letter and text notifications) to increase attendance at hearings and family team meetings, and increase compliance with their court orders and case plans; and
  • Resource – Providing links to community and governmental resources they may need, as well as information. Acting as a first contact resource for questions. Helping them develop strategies for the post-closure “phase” of the case.

Case Navigator™ serves attorneys, DHS, and other professionals by:

  • Provides a centralized location for critical documents (e.g., orders, case plans, FTM notes) and contact information. This allows clients and professionals to update information in ONE central place that all members of the team can access, rather than requiring multiple emails. For example, FTM facilitators can upload the meeting notes to the site, rather than send out emails, which often results in people being “missed” because the email list is not current. The facilitator does not have to spend time tracking down current emails and editing the mailing list. However, there are no attorney/client privileged or work product documents, and no confidential documents that the team would not otherwise have access to.
  • Reminds clients to update their information whenever they sign on to the site. Clients no longer have to remember to send out multiple emails/texts to every member of their team when their information changes.
  • Providing and implementing the teaching pieces so that the professionals can focus their time and energies on the things they are uniquely qualified to do (e.g., legal advice, social work assistance (problem-solving, parenting education, etc)). This also allows attorneys to “recapture” billable hours.
  • Helps keep clients on track, leading to better outcomes.

Case Navigator™ does NOT:

  • Attend hearings, family team meetings, or staffings
  • Meet with the client on a regular basis
  • Create a case plan
  • Directly assist in obtaining services, whether ordered by the court or otherwise (though Case Navigator™ may provide information regarding services, such as links to housing resources, for example)
  • Provide legal representation/advice, or any type of medical, mental health, or substance abuse disorder treatment.

 

Question/Comment: Are Case Navigator’s™ subject to any privilege? 

Case Navigator™ focuses on information, accountability, and helping the team work better together: not on legal, medical, or mental health advice/treatment. Case Navigators™ are not given privileged information, nor do they have access to it. Confidential or privileged information is not put on the site/app.

Everything on the digital site is already available to everyone on the case, (e.g., court orders, approved DHS Case plans (pulled from the court order), Family Team Meeting Notes, etc.). Additionally, everyone on the “team” (DHS, Attorneys, GAL, CASA, FSRP) has access to the site, so there is nothing Case Navigator™ would know that would be a “secret” to anyone else on the team. If therapy or substance abuse reports are uploaded, that is because the client—on the advice of his/her attorney—has waived rights with regard to privilege/confidentiality; and the documents have been uploaded by the attorney—not Case Navigator™.

 

Comment/Question: How are CINAs, TPRs, and Appeals different as they relate to juvenile court and Case Navigator™?

Response: Not only is there a difference in how cases are counted with regard to numbers of individuals involved, but also the type of case. A Child in Need of Assistance (“CINA”) petition is filed first. If, at some point, DHS does not believe the family can reunify within the statutorily prescribed time period, the county attorney will file a Petition for the Termination of Parental Rights (“TPR”). This is a separate case, with a separate case number; and again, one for each child in the family. Case Navigator™ will note this different case number, but will not count it as a new case, the way the court does.

CINAs and TPRs are filed with the district court, while Appeals are filed with the Appellate Court. But Case Navigator’s™ services end when the case closes or when the parents’ rights are terminated. Case Navigator™ is not involved at the appellate level. This is because the goal of Case Navigator™ is to prevent cases from going to and/or being “TPR’d.” Once parental rights are terminated, there is nothing more Case Navigator™ can do to help. Appeals are not a “second bite at the apple” — they are considered on the facts presented to the district court. Thus, unless the court made a mistake at the district court level, the ruling will not be overturned, even if the parents are now doing what they are “supposed to” be doing.

 

Question/Comment: “If you expand this to every CINA case in Iowa, that will be a huge amount of money!”

Response: “Statewide program” is not the same as “take every case that is filed.”

 I always say that juvenile cases fall into one of three categories: cases that will reunify without the assistance of Case Navigator™; cases that will not reunify no matter how much assistance any of us provides (usually when there are multiple issues, e.g., substance abuse and mental health issues, and domestic violence); and those that could go either way. While that last group is obviously the “sweet spot” for Case Navigator™, the problem is that you don’t know where any given case will fall at the start of the case. Sometimes, the cases that seem “easy” are the ones that derail, while parents in the “hopeless” cases get their lives together and reunify.

Because of that, one of the purposes of having a pilot program is to collect data so that at the end of the pilot program, we can determine which cases are best served by Case Navigator™. The pilot program is the time to take cases on a random basis so that we can make those decisions based on evidence, not speculation. That means that although the service would ultimately be offered in every county (i.e., statewide), not every case would qualify for the service. This is already true of the services CASA offers, so it’s simply a matter of determining where best to spend our resources.

 

Question/Comment The Service is Duplicative. Aren’t DHS/Attorney/Parent Partner/ FSRP, etc. already doing this?

Response: In a word—no. I would (gently) say that while Case Navigator™ may appear duplicative on paper, it is not duplicative in reality. The foundational work is not being done consistently or well, for some very good (and, I would guess, not so very good) reasons. For example:

  • Both attorneys and DHS have time constraints, though they play out a bit differently.
    • If you do the math (total dollars allowed per case, divided by the hourly rate), attorneys have only about 35 hours to spend on the ENTIRE case[1] (not including TPR, which is a separate “case,” or appeal). This means that they will understandably and quite reasonably spend those 35 hours on the legal issues—not procedural and logistical ones.
    • DHS has a different time issue; they are drowning in paperwork and have large caseloads.[2] They have the more generally understood “not enough hours in the day” problem.
  • Here is what I have heard (from very good, competent professionals):
    • “I often get to the hearing and only then find out that my client hasn’t been going to therapy. I wish there was a way I could find out sooner.”
    • “Best practices are not always ACTUAL practices.” ~DHS
    • “It’s embarrassing to have to call DHS and ask if they have my client’s current phone number because s/he hasn’t updated me.” ~Attorney
    • “I wish there was one place everyone involved in the case could go to get information; things fall through the cracks when we rely on emailing information to various people.” ~DHS/Parent Partners
    • “I wish there was a way to send text notifications to parents to remind them of their hearings. We waste so much time rescheduling because they get the date/time wrong. Our dentists and hairdressers use this—why would we not use it for the much more important things like court hearings?” ~Polk County Judge
    • “I give my clients the Juvenile Court’s Parent Handbook, but I don’t have time to talk about everything that’s in it. I just hope they read it.” “~Attorneys
    • “Parents in juvenile court aren’t reading the handbook, even if I give it to them.” “~Attorney
    • I wish there was a way to remind my clients that they need to schedule an appointment with me before the hearing. But I wish that reminder didn’t have to come from me (i.e., adding another thing to MY to-do list). ~Attorney
  • While GALs obviously want to know what the parents are doing in order to make the best recommendations for the children they represent, it is not their job to monitor the parents.
  • Case Navigator™ is not interested in replacing other professionals; the role of Case Navigator™ is to come alongside these professionals and help them do their jobs better by relieving them of some of the base-of-the-pyramid tasks so they can focus on the top-of-the-pyramid ones.

 

Question/Comment: If we are going to put money to this, why don’t we pay the lawyers more since that seems to be the reason the lawyers aren’t doing it now? We already have a GAL, DHS worker, County Attorney, Mom’s Attorney, Dad’s Attorney, possibly an attorney for a child, and I know other people can be involved as well. Maybe we should just give the more money to do what they should already be doing, instead of adding another person into the mix.

Response: With regard to lawyers, the issue isn’t the lawyers’ hourly rates—it’s the cap on the case. Paying lawyers more/hour doesn’t help the time issue. Additionally, because the attorneys can make an oft-granted motion to “exceed fees,” that suggests that it might not be the time issue; instead, it’s the perhaps unspoken rule that they don’t get paid to, for example, talk about the process, terms, and acronyms; they get paid for legal work. While I agree that court-appointed attorneys in juvenile court are underpaid, that agreement is a separate issue from this.[3]

Case Navigator™ helps indirectly in the following ways:

  • By allowing Case Navigator™ to work alongside the professionals (whether attorneys, DHS, or others), the teaching, accountability, and resource pieces are no longer their responsibility, and they can “spend” their hours on the higher level issues, which is what they are uniquely qualified to bring to the table.
  • When cases don’t go to TPR, it frees up money that would otherwise be spent on TPR and appeals to be spent on other cases/families. For DHS, it frees up money that would be spent on foster and adoptive care subsidies to be spent on services that will help reunify other families.
  • When all of the most important documents reside in one place, the whole team can, at a glance, see what services are being offered, whether the client is participating as ordered, and quickly and easily change and access contact information and critical documents.[4] They don’t have to call FSRP, look for current email addresses, or try to find the client on Facebook.
  • Attorneys, FSRP, and DHS are less likely to spend time answering the “tell me again when my hearing is” question, or repeatedly providing other information (e.g., contact information for DHS, answering procedural and logistical questions, etc.) because Case Navigator™ provides that, either on the site, or as a first contact resource person. This again frees up time that can be converted to more productive, billable tasks.
  • It helps the client become more responsible for their case, because they do not need to rely on the professionals to “hold their hand,” but can instead more actively partner with them on the top-of-the-pyramid issues. And because Case Navigator™ is providing consistent, excellent teaching, as well as helping facilitate the accountability piece, the parents can make better decisions, which makes the professionals’ lives easier.[5]

Additionally, all of the professionals are, in a sense, doing the SAME things—providing top-of-the-pyramid work in the form of either legal counsel, or social work-type assistance. No one is focused on the foundational pieces, and no one has the technology piece that allows everyone to work together as a team. I would also (gently) note that when everyone thinks someone else is doing something, that often means no one is doing it. I have had people ask me the same question with only one telling variable: “Shouldn’t               be doing this?” The “              “ has been filled with everything from DHS, to the attorney, to CASA, to FSRP, to Parent Partners.

With regard to funding and whether that should go to attorneys, DHS, or Case Navigator™, I would say this: simply spending more money on the same processes does not solve the underlying problems; it just gives you more of what you already have. Case Navigator™ has a simple, yet innovative approach that not only addresses this “pyramid gap,” but also indirectly frees up resources for DHS and Attorneys to “spend” elsewhere.

 

[1] I understand that they can request, and be granted, additional fees, but that requires additional paperwork, the judge must approve, the SPD must approve…and it is unlikely that this approval will be given for “teaching, procedural and logistical” matters.

[2] While it may be true that their caseloads have gone down, my understanding is that they are still higher than recommended. This isn’t to say that DHS is doing anything wrong or improper in how they are counted—just to say that the they still have a fairly extraordinary workload.

[3] My belief is that they deserve to be paid more because they do extraordinarily important work, yet are paid far less than their private attorney colleagues.

[4] The “whether they are attending” part of the technology is something I have to confirm with the technology consultant and FSRP

[5] Many of these benefits also apply to DHS as well.

Clarification – Part One

I enjoy talking to people about Case Navigator™, even people who might be critical of it, because it helps me sharpen my message, see where the pushback is (so that I can clarify and/or correct misinformation), and hear what people want and think is most important. The appropriations bill to fund a two-year pilot program has been filed. However, legislative bills are, by nature, written broadly, so talking to people also gives me the opportunity to flesh it out a bit. I thought it might be helpful to highlight some of the discussions I’ve had over the last few weeks with a variety of individuals (though I am not going to identify them by name). But in order to understand where the questions/comments are coming from, a bit of an introduction/overview is in order (though I recognize that some of this is a bit duplicative of a previous post). That’s what today’s post is about. On Monday, I will address specific questions and comments.

 **************************

Most of us learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at some point in our lives; usually represented as a pyramid, it tells us that at the bottom are the basic needs—food, shelter, safety, etc. As you work your way to the top, you ultimately get to “self-actualization.” This is the top-of-the-pyramid goal. We also learned that you cannot start there; if people are homeless or hungry, they really don’t care about “self-actualization.”

This same concept can apply to many things—including juvenile court.

Parents who find themselves in juvenile court due to a removal of their children come in traumatized by that loss. They may bring experiences of past traumas to this new one, and are likely dealing with other challenging issues, such as substance abuse disorders or mental health issues. All of these things stretch their cognitive and emotional “bandwith” to the snapping point. But despite knowing all this, when parents enter juvenile court we don’t start with the foundational, bottom-of-the-pyramid things.

Instead, parents have a DHS worker who is focused on top-of-the-pyramid social work issues, such as case plans. An attorney is appointed, and comes in with top-of-the-pyramid legal advice. But again—although those things are all very important, that’s not where parents are. They are at the bottom of the pyramid, wondering what a TPR is, what (and who) FSRP is and wondering what s/he does. They don’t know what an adjudication hearing is, or disposition, or where any of those things fall in the process. They may not even know where the courthouse is (especially since juvenile recently moved), whether they can (or are required to) bring their kids to court, and where to sit in the courtroom. This isn’t about not being “smart” enough to understand these things; it’s that it’s a foreign “language” and experience to them—as it would be for most people.

Case Navigator™ is designed to do one thing: meet the client where s/he is in order to close that “pyramid” gap, so children can safely reunify with their families faster.

Most of the professionals involved in juvenile cases are focused on helping people comply with orders and case plans and become better parents (whether through substance abuse treatment, therapy, or other services) so kids can go home. And those things are really important, of course. But those “services” would be far more effective if parents had the foundational understanding of the process, people, expectations, and terms/acronyms they will encounter along the way.

Case Navigator™ also uses technology in a way that has not been used before. It fosters a team (rather than adversarial) approach, provides up-to-date information, and helps parents become both more self-sufficient and more compliant with their orders and case plans.

Simply providing more money to the processes that are currently in place doesn’t solve the underlying problems. Case Navigator™ offers a new way to look at how we work with families in juvenile court, one that does not ignore the importance of the top-of-the-pyramid work or seek to replace it, but instead provides a strong foundation on which to build that work.

 

Up next—specific questions and challenges regarding the service. Things like:

  • Are Case Navigator’s™ subject to privilege?
  • How do you define a team? A case?
  • Are you really looking to serve every single family in Iowa that’s involved in juvenile court?