What Should I Expect at Court?

Dear Parents:

Here are some things you might like to know before heading into court.

  1. Iowa practices a “one family, one judge” philosophy. That means that barring any unforeseen circumstances, your hearings will be in the same courtroom, with the same judge every time.
  2. Parking can be a challenge downtown, so plan to arrive early. The on street, metered parking near the courthouse has a two-hour limit. The Hy-Vee parking ramp is free for the first two hours and $3.00 for every hour after that. Ramps tend to be around $1/hour. You will not be able to go “feed the meter” during a hearing, so ask your attorney how long the hearing will be so you can plan appropriately. Click here for parking ramp locations, and here if you are interested in a Smart Card parking card. The advantage to the card is that you can put the maximum time into the meter, and then “reload” whatever time is left back on to your card.
  3. Children can attend their hearings; in some cases, the judge may require you to bring them. If they attend, you may want to have another adult there who can take the child out if the judge asks you to do that (if, for example, the judge wants to hear information that s/he does not believe would be appropriate for the child to hear). Let the guardian ad litem know if you plan to bring the kids.
  4. You will sit at counsel table with your attorney. There are microphones at counsel table that are fairly sensitive, however, so if you need to speak to your attorney privately, you may want to turn away from the microphone and speak quietly.
  5. If you are incarcerated, you may still be allowed to attend the hearing in person or by telephone. If you attend in person, you will be accompanied by law enforcement, who will remain in the courtroom. You may be allowed to meet with your attorney prior to the hearing in a secure room. You will be allowed to sit at counsel table with your attorney.
  6. Juvenile court is a bit more informal than other courts. The judge may ask you some questions. One of the questions s/he may ask is if there are any other services you need to be successful. These may be financial, or services such as therapy, or even things like bus tokens to get to various appointments. You can also talk to your attorney about what you need.
  7. Wear your “poker face.” Do not allow anyone to provoke you in the courtroom, do not “get into it” with the other parent (or anyone else), and do not give people the “stink eye” in court. The judge will see all this, and will not like it. In other words, be civil and polite, in order to give the judge the best impression of you possible.
  8. Your attorney is your advocate; if you’re having trouble with something, or are having trouble getting hold of DHS, call your attorney. Yes, they represent you in court, but they can do that much more effectively if they know what else is going on.
  9. If you fail a drug test, quit going to therapy, or fail to do something else the court or DHS has asked you to do, tell your attorney when it happens (don’t wait until right before the hearing). Your attorney cannot “tell on you,” because of attorney/client privilege (though these things will likely come out anyway), but s/he can help you get back on track faster.
  10. You don’t have to be perfect. But you do have to substantially comply with what you are being asked to do.

Other questions? You will likely meet with your attorney when the date of the hearing approaches. Write down your questions, and when you meet with your attorney ask him or her to answer them.

Is it Really Domestic Violence?

Each month I attend a Model Court Training session dedicated to a topic of interest to those working with families in juvenile court. Yesterday’s topic was domestic violence and covered such things as how it impacts CINA cases, and also tips for attorneys working with these families. The focus was on helping victims—usually the moms. They really had no tips for attorneys representing dads who were the (alleged) abusers. It occurred to me that when we focus only on the victims, we are always in reactive mode. What if we could shift to a more proactive perspective and try to either stop domestic violence before it happens or at least prevent it from happening again? That, of course, is much harder, but it would also be much more effective.

The first problem is that we aren’t always “diagnosing” the problem accurately.

When someone is arrested the first time for an OWI, we don’t assume the individual has a substance abuse disorder. We instead ask for an assessment. It’s possible the person has a disorder, of course, but it is also possible that this was a one-time event where they drank more than they usually did, misjudged their level of impairment, and got “caught.” But unless there is an assessment done by a professional trained in this type of evaluation, we don’t know which it is. It’s only after the assessment is done that we decide what the treatment/consequence should be.

But with domestic violence, we really only look at two factors: was there violence, and were the parties in an intimate/family relationship? If the answer to those two questions is yes, then it’s domestic violence.

But that might not be true. And if it’s not true, then not only are we giving someone an incorrect (and harmful) label, but we’re not treating the problem correctly. Let me give you two examples from cases I’ve worked on (details changed, of course, to protect identity).

In the first case. Steve and Sarah have a daughter, Cassie, together. Steve does not allow Sarah to work, insisting instead that she stay home and raise Cassie. Because Sarah is not working, she has no income of her own. Steve gives her money for the household and for spending, but she does not have access to that money herself. Further, she must account for every penny she spends from that “allowance.” Sarah has a car, but Steve closely monitors the mileage; he also insists on monitoring her cell phone calls and texts, explaining that he “loves her so much” that he just “couldn’t stand it” if she was seeing someone else. He argues that if she has nothing to hide, she won’t mind if he checks. They’re married after all, and shouldn’t have any secrets.

Steve also tells Sarah that if she tries to leave him, he will take Cassie, and Sarah will never see the little girl again. To demonstrate his ability to do this, Sarah tells about a time when they went to the grocery store. Cassie was asleep in her car seat, so rather than wake her, Steve suggests Sarah go in alone. Steve seems relaxed, and the couple has been getting along, so Sarah agrees.

When she comes out, the truck is gone. Sarah is immediately gripped by an unimaginable terror. She frantically looks around for the truck, and shortly thereafter, Steve pulls up, laughing. He’s made his point. He could run with Cassie at any time. And if Sarah reports what he just did, he will just say that she “forgot where he was parked,” or, that he “moved the truck so Cassie would be in the shade.” His explanation is completely logical, but also completely false.

Sarah reports that Steve pinches her if she’s not doing what he wants, but otherwise there’s no physical violence.

In the second case, Andrew and Jessica have been married for ten years. It’s a second marriage for both, and Jessica has two teenagers from a previous marriage who live with her. Andrew has no previous children, although his first wife also had two teenaged kids. Andrew and Jessica have two children together. Both of his wives’ children have had fairly significant issues: his first stepdaughter ran away from home with her boyfriend when she was 15-years-old. His current stepson has mental health and behavioral issues that resulted in inpatient psychiatric treatment, as well as outpatient counseling. This occurred both before and after Andrew and Jessica met and married. Andrew and Jessica are in their late 40’s; there has never been any allegation of domestic violence against Andrew by anyone.

Both Andrew and Jessica have full-time jobs. In addition to their joint checking account, they each have their own bank account that is not monitored by the other. Both have a vehicle and a cell-phone, but the other party does not monitor that. Both are free to travel to visit family or friends.

Andrew has a high-stress, dangerous job. Jessica has a chronic illness that periodically results in her missing work and being bedridden. At the time of the event described below, Andrew was working a fair amount of overtime. His beloved dog that had been with him for years was dying of cancer. Jessica was having a “flare-up” of her disease and was unable to do anything around the house; she was also unable to properly oversee the two younger children, and was leaving it to the older ones to care for them until Andrew got home.

When he arrived home on this particular evening, an issue came up regarding the behavior of his stepson. The stepdaughter reacted the way teenagers often do—she “mouthed off.” And that was all it took. Because of everything else going on in Andrew’s life, his “emotional bandwidth” was stretched too thin, and he pushed her down—onto the couch. He does not deny this. She claimed he “choked her.” He does deny this, but notes that because of her height, it’s entirely possible that he pushed her in the area of her sternum. There were no marks on her that would support her story of being choked.

At that point, Jessica came into the room, barreling into Andrew to “stop him.” He pushed her off of him, and she lost her balance, falling to the floor. She also did not suffer any injuries and had no marks. She left with the kids, and he did not pursue her, and he ultimately filed for divorce. There was no additional violence, even when she moved out. There was no additional violence when she immediately found a new  (albeit temporary) partner.

Both of the cases were deemed to be domestic violence. But were they? If not, which one was domestic violence and which one wasn’t?

Domestic violence is generally seen as a play for “power and control.” Violence is simply the tool used to achieve that power and control. It’s characterized by such things as preventing the victim from having access to money, family, and friends. She (and it is overwhelmingly a “she”) may be prevented from working (which is different from a decision made together for her to stay home to raise the children). He may refuse to let her visit family and friends without him.

All of these things are clearly present in the first case, but not the second case. Yet the “violence” was much less in the first than the second, especially if you believe the “choking” allegation. It’s important to remember, however, that because it’s about control (and not violence), domestic violence abusers will only use the level of violence necessary to control the victim. If pinching controls her, he doesn’t need to hit, push, choke, or kick her. It’s only when the victim begins to resist control that the violence will escalate.[1]

Too often, abusers are sent to “anger management” class. But because domestic violence is really about control, this isn’t effective. Most abusers know how to manage their anger; they don’t abuse their boss, their golfing buddy, etc. They can present to the rest of the world as a laid-back, reasonable guy. In other words, they “manage” their anger very well. What they need is batterer’s education.

In the case above, Andrew had no history of trying to control either his first or second wife. And there was no “minor” violence that gradually escalated into pushing or choking. In other words, although there was violence, and although it occurred within an intimate/family setting, it was really not domestic violence. It was simply an assault/battery that occurred against a family member/intimate partner. In Andrew’s case, he was sent to batterer’s education, when he may have actually needed anger management (though even that’s debatable; it’s possible it was a situational, one-time event).

But if abusers try to protest that they don’t belong in batterer’s education, they are told they are not “taking ownership” of their actions. Yet that wasn’t true in Andrew’s case; he fully acknowledged that what he did was wrong. He didn’t blame either his stepdaughter or his wife. He simply didn’t believe (probably correctly) that he was a batterer; he did not fit the “profile.” And if he is right about that, then batterer’s education was not going to help him. And anger management was not offered to him.

So was the class effective in preventing further violence? Or was Andrew given solutions to a problem that didn’t exist, while not receiving the information and tools that would have helped him in the future?

Don’t misunderstand—violence against a partner or family member is never ok. The point is, without proper “diagnosis” (i.e., is it domestic violence or is it a one-time assault against an intimate partner?), we can’t properly “treat” the problem. And until we start correctly assessing, diagnosing, and treating the real problem, we’re not going to solve it.

Which means we’re stuck in reactive mode by focusing only on the victim.

 

[1] This is why the most dangerous time for a woman is when she tries to leave. Leaving is the ultimate loss of control for an abuser, which is why he will resort to the ultimate level of violence—murder.

Hearings

Some of the questions a lot of people have are about the hearings. Although your case may be different, here is some general information about Child in Need of Assistance (“CINA”) case hearings. The hearings are listed in order, and also tell you the purpose of the hearing, and what might happen at each hearing. If your case is different, feel free to ask your attorney to explain your situation to you.

At the end of each hearing, you should receive an order setting the date for the next hearing. You may also receive an order regarding the court’s findings and decision, though if it is a bit more complex, that may be filed later.

 

Removal Hearing

This is the very first hearing that takes place, and it occurs within ten (10) days of your child’s removal from your care. The purpose is to determine whether, at the time of the hearing, the child can be safely returned home. It is not to determine whether the removal was “right” in the first place.

Side note—At the time of removal, DHS may ask you whether you will test positive if you do a drug screen. Do not lie to them, or hope that it will come back negative. If they’re asking about drug usage, that may mean they are concerned about the possibility that you might be using. And if they’re concerned, they will almost always require you to take a drug test. If it comes back positive after you tell them it will be negative, your credibility will be damaged, which will hurt you going forward.

 

Adjudication

The Adjudication Hearing takes place within sixty (60) days of the removal hearing. This hearing is when the court determines whether your child is in need of its assistance, based on the evidence presented. If the court finds that you have abused or neglected your child, or if the judge finds you are using, making, or selling drugs illegally, it is likely the court will find that your child is in need of its assistance.

If the court finds that your child does need its assistance, the court can make one of the following decisions regarding where your child will go at this time:

  • If your child was not removed, but is found to need the court’s assistance, s/he may be permitted to remain in your home.
  • If the child was removed, the court could return the child to your home, but may still order services.
  • Your child may go to the home of a relative, or
  • Your child could go to foster care (or in rare cases, to a facility/group home).

 

Dispositional Hearing

This hearing is held within sixty (60) days of the Adjudication hearing, but will sometimes be held at the same time as the Adjudication Hearing. The court will determine placement, custody, supervision, and services.

Talk to your attorney before the hearing to discuss what services you might need to help you reunify with your children. These might include (but aren’t limited to) substance abuse treatment, therapy (for you and/or your children); bus passes (if transportation is an issue), housing assistance, etc. If you’re not sure what services you need, start by thinking about what’s getting in the way of your success in reunification. For example, if you are at risk for being homeless, ask for housing assistance. If you are having trouble maintaining employment because you don’t have reliable transportation, bus passes might be an option. Although DHS will off various services (or in some cases, require them), it’s up to you to ask DHS and the court for the services you need that they may not have offered.

 

Review Hearing

Approximately six (6) months after the Dispositional Hearing, there will be a review hearing. At this hearing, the judge will check in to see how you are doing. This might be a good time to talk about visitation.

There are three (3) types of visitation: supervised, semi-supervised, and unsupervised. If you start at supervised visitation (which is common), then the goal is to gradually increase visitation and move to semi-supervised visitation, and then to unsupervised visitation. There will almost always need to be at least some unsupervised visitation prior to reunification.

Supervised Visitation is often done by the FSRP worker, but may also be done by a relative.

Semi-Supervised Visitation acts like a “bridge” between supervised and unsupervised visitation. The FSRP worker might not attend the entire visitation, but may drop in and out. Or some types of visitation (e.g., in a public place, for short periods of time) might be unsupervised, but longer visits in the home might be supervised.

Unsupervised Visitation is where you want to be leading up to the permanency hearing if possible. That’s not always possible, and it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to reunify.

If the visitation is going well, you can always ask DHS to increase your visitation or move to semi-supervised. Talk to your FSRP worker as well, because s/he may see you more often than DHS, so his/her opinion about when you can increase visitation will carry weight. If there have been problems, either with visitation or, say, a relapse, that might not be the best time to ask for more visitation or semi-supervised visitation. If you’re not sure, ask your attorney.

If you ask DHS and are told no, ask (politely) for the reason(s) and then visit with your attorney about it. If there is a hearing coming up, your attorney can ask the judge to grant more (or different) visitation, even if DHS doesn’t agree. If you can demonstrate to the judge that you’ve earned it, s/he will sometimes grant your request even if DHS disagrees.

But remember—don’t ask for more visitation or semi-supervised or unsupervised visitation just because you want it. You have to demonstrate to DHS and/or the court that you have earned it by having a good track record of recent visitation without any other issues (such as relapse, for example).

 

Permanency Hearing

At the permanency hearing, the court could do one of four (4) things:

  • Return your child to your care/custody (with or without closing the case)
  • Grant an extension so that you have more time to demonstrate that you’re ready to reunify. This sometimes happens if you’ve been doing well overall, but maybe had a “hiccup” —maybe you relapsed or are having issues with housing, for example.
  • Don’t terminate, but set up some other permanent arrangement, such as a guardianship.
  • Termination of Parental Rights – this is the outcome you do not This would end your legal relationship with, and rights to your child. The court could direct the county attorney or guardian ad litem to file this petition, or, if it has already been filed, the judge could rule on it at this hearing.

 

Termination of Parental Rights

This petition is considered to be a separate case with separate case numbers, but all of the evidence from the CINA comes forward into the TPR case. Although you would have the right to appeal a TPR if you lost, the odds of getting that decision reversed on appeal are not good, so it’s important to prevent that from happening if possible.

Most cases reunify, which should encourage you. But not all of them. You can dramatically increase your chances of reunification if you do what the courts and DHS are asking you to do on a consistent basis. If there is something that you truly believe is an unreasonable request, talk to your attorney about it and let him or her raise that issue.

There are a few other hearings that sometimes occur, such as a modification hearing (if something happens that necessitates modifying placement or visitation, for example), or a permanency review hearing. But the ones listed above are the most common ones.

As always, if you have general questions, feel free to email me. If they are specific to your case, call your lawyer. They are there to represent you, so don’t hesitate to ask them to help you.

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 (against the parents, DHS, and pretty much everyone involved; unfortunately, they don’t always have their facts right). 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. In the eyes of the law, those parents have the same legal rights (including the right not to have the government looking over their shoulders) as biological parents. That lack of oversight 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 do care about what happens to kids, they also often have their own agenda—reelection. This means that things sometimes get exaggerated, 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 ask you to do, but it is DHS who makes recommendations (that may or may not be approved by the court) as 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). If you think DHS is making an unreasonable request, talk to your attorney. If your attorney agrees with you, she can raise that issue. But in most cases, you will be required to follow the case plan.
  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. While there may be reasons for doing that, it puts you (the parent) in a difficult position. Sometimes parents try to stop the methadone or Suboxone and end up relapsing—and this can be very dangerous. Clearly, that’s not good. Talk to your attorney if you find yourself in this position, and never simply stop taking your medication without talking to your doctor first. There is a lot of misinformation out there about MAT (Medication Assisted Treatment), so it’s important to get your attorney involved so you can stay on your doctor’s plan without repercussions.
  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 and 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. Being respectful and civil goes a long ways towards a good working relationship with your DHS worker.
  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. If there’s a scheduling problem, talk to them about that, but it’s generally not a good idea to flat out refuse. Sometimes DHS will require you to do a drug test 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 something much more problematic, like heroin or cocaine.
  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 your 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…