Last April, I launched a business called Case Navigator™, which is designed to safely reunify families who find themselves in juvenile (child welfare) court, and to do that in a timely fashion. I have talked to many, many people who have been very generous with their time—experts in their field, as well as legislators on both sides of the aisle. I have done research, attended conferences, and have done a lot of listening, trying to craft the best possible service that will serve parents and the professionals that work with them. The bill, as written, is pretty general. If you would like more details, I would be delighted to talk to you. And—

On Thursday, Senator Matt McCoy filed Senate Bill 79—proposing funding for a case navigator pilot program! I am so grateful, and so excited.

And here’s the humorous, “personal touch” part of the story.

My friend and colleague, Diane Dornburg, had invited me to speak at her church last December regarding CASA (a well-regarded and meaningful program for which I volunteer as a coach—we work with abused and neglected kids) and also juvenile (child welfare) court generally. I was delighted to do so, and had a wonderful time.

On Thursday, she sent me an email, asking, “Do you have a bill?” Because I had no idea that SF 79 had been filed, I thought she was asking if I had a bill to submit for my speaking engagement! I was sitting there thinking, “Well, no, that was a freebie.” But then I opened up the attachment, and realized she was talking about the legislative bill that Senator McCoy filed!

Sitting in Caribou, waiting to meet a friend, I could hardly keep from jumping up and down, fist pumping, and yelling, “Yes!!!” (Or as my friend, Steve Quirk, CEO of Youth Emergency Services & Shelter would say, “YESS”!). And then, when I calmed down a bit, I had another thought.

“I have no idea what to do next.”

I do know there is still a long road ahead, with a lot of hard work involved. I know it might not go anywhere. BUT—this is a very significant step towards helping parents stay on track, to help their “team” function more efficiently and effectively, and to get kids back home safely.

That’s my big news! Thank you for letting me share it with you. And if you have been a part of this journey with me, THANK YOU! Thank you so much for your generosity of time, your willingness to make introductions, and your encouragement along the way.

It means the world to me.




Maslow’s Hierarchy and Juvenile Court

Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? The main piece that most people know is that you have to have the lower level needs (i.e., physiological and safety) met before you can move to the higher level ones. Although most of us are familiar with this hierarchy, we sometimes forget how it works, or fail to see how it might apply in other situations.

For example, I once attended a church that raised money for the pastor’s discretionary fund. This was a kind of “slush fund” for situations where someone would show up at the church doorstep in desperate need for money (for rent, utilities, food, etc.) and nowhere else to go. One of the ways we funded this account was through a Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper. One year, I suggested that we place jars and slips of paper on the tables so that people who were “dining” with us could write a brief prayer of encouragement and place it in the jar. Then, whenever the pastor distributed funds, s/he could also include a written prayer.

Although many liked the idea, the senior deacon ultimately shot it down, saying she was worried we might “offend” someone.

To me, this was ridiculous, but it illustrates the point; people who are in such dire need are focused almost solely on having their “physiological and safety needs” met—they are not concerned with whether they are “loved” or “belong” to our church, they’re not thinking about whether a prayer is going to negatively impact their “esteem,” and they sure as heck aren’t going to say, “Well, that prayer just destroyed my ability to self-actualize! How dare a church offer a prayer”?!

In other words, the senior deacon was operating from a place higher up on the hierarchy than the future recipients of funds, oblivious to the fact that the people we were trying to serve were not residing there.

Juvenile court is a bit like that, although not necessarily for lack of awareness.

The belief that the services Case Navigator™ provides are “duplicative” suggests that people are aware of this. The problem is that the professionals are very focused on the high-level things like legal issues and social-work-type issues—as they should be—to the exclusion of the lower level issues of understanding basic terms, acronyms, logistics and procedures. The high level issues that garner the most attention are obviously really important. But because of heavy caseloads, time pressures, burdensome paperwork and a myriad of other, very good reasons, those lower level things get cast by the wayside.

But here’s the thing—those “physiological and safety” equivalent issues are where their clients are. And if parents don’t understand those lower level, basic things, they’re going to struggle with the higher level ones. Multiplication and division are important, but if you don’t know how to add and subtract, it will be very difficult to learn multiplication and division. Likewise, parents who aren’t familiar with juvenile court and its myriad terms, acronyms, procedures, etc., will struggle to understand what the court and DHS are asking them to do. This isn’t because the court doesn’t do a good job of explaining itself, and not because they’re not “smart enough,” but rather because their focus is still back on trying to figure out things like where to sit in the courtroom, what the attorneys are saying in the courtroom, and how they’re going to get to their court-ordered therapy while still keeping their job—which they are also required to do per DHS’ case plan.

Some of the pushback I’ve received regarding Case Navigator™ is that it is duplicative of the services DHS (or others) is already providing. There are two interesting things about that: first, when I started this, I heard from a variety of people, asking the same question, but with one significant difference. The questions were these:

  • Shouldn’t DHS be doing this?
  • Shouldn’t their attorney be doing this?
  • Shouldn’t CASA be doing this?

What that tells me is that when everybody thinks somebody else is doing something, it usually means nobody is doing it.

That’s painting with a broad stroke, of course. But it brings up the second interesting thing: best practices are not always actual practices.

Hard as it may be to hear or accept, any duplication is, for the most part, on paper only. Even if DHS “should” be doing this, they are not doing it consistently or well. And again—I’m not trying to throw DHS under the proverbial bus. DHS is drowning in paperwork, heavy caseloads and the often terrifying and overwhelming concern about making a mistake. In business, mistakes are recognized as the path to growth, improvement, and innovation. But in DHS’ world, a mistake can lead to tragic outcomes. Is it any wonder, then, that the “teaching piece” is a lower, and sometimes essentially ignored, priority?

Attorneys who have significant “caps” on the time they can spend and bill on a case are handing out the Juvenile Court Parent Handbook, but my guess is that their clients are not reading them (kind of like employee handbooks—when did you last read yours?). The hours attorneys are allowed to “spend” on their cases are understandably best spent on the legal issues their clients face.

And no, CASAs are not responsible for educating parents, because they advocate for the children. And—they are volunteers. That’s not to say they don’t help parents, it’s just that that part is not their primary focus; nor should it be.

But no matter how good the “reasons” for not focusing on these foundational pieces, it doesn’t solve the problem of how to get the parents “up to speed” so that they can begin focusing on the higher level issues and successfully reunify with their kids.

And “successfully reunify,” to me, does not just mean that their kids are returned to them. It means kids will be safe and the family won’t be back in “the system,” of course, but it also means that moms and dads have the tools—and the ability and commitment to implement them—to be the parents their kids deserve. It means long-term, positive change and healthy, happy kids.

I’m not a therapist, and I’m not currently practicing law, so I can’t do these things directly. But the purpose of Case Navigator™ is to come alongside these other professionals and help with the teaching piece (i.e., the lower levels of the hierarchy) so that it is delivered in an effective, consistent manner. It is to be a kind of “personal accountability coach” to help parents stay on track with their case plans and court orders so that they are attending therapy (if ordered), their court hearings, and generally doing all the things that will not only help them reunify with their children, but be better parents when they do. And finally, Case Navigator™ is a support system and resource; during the process, to be sure, but also to provide a strategic session at the end, before the case closes, so that parents know who they can go to for help, or how they might respond to situations that could come up after the case closes.

If Case Navigator™ can help meet those foundational “needs,” it both frees up time for the professionals to focus on the higher level matters, and also helps that work be more easily understood and more effective for their clients.

Win-win, yes?





Why Do Kids Want to Stay with Abusive Parents?

Hailey (not her real name, of course) was one of my CASA “kids” when I was serving as an advocate. This sassy 10-year-old apparently viewed me (and everyone else involved in her case) as a “snitch,” because whenever I asked her a question, her first response was, “Why? Are you going to tell the judge?” Even when the question was as innocuous as, “What did you have for breakfast?”!

Hailey and her sister had been removed from her mother’s care after a child was critically injured in their home. The allegations against Hailey’s mom were horrifying, and ultimately she ended up in prison for a while. You would think that in a situation like that, Hailey would be anxious to go to a safer home, away from her abusive mother.

But that’s not usually the way it plays out.

In fact, the one thing Hailey did want me to tell the judge was that she wanted to go home, to be reunited with her mother. Whenever there was a hearing, I would ask her, “Is there anything you want me to tell the judge for you?” Inevitably, the response was, “Tell her I want to go home.” This was true even when the kids learned their mom was going to prison.

I would visit Hailey’s classroom and look at her journal; it was covered with Hailey’s handwriting, with declarations like, “My mom rocks!” or, “My mom is cool!” Over, and over, front cover, back cover, inside pages—as though if she wrote it down often enough, she could make it true.

Why? The parent/child bond is a formidable thing—from both a psychological and biological perspective. While I don’t pretend to be a researcher, you can go here if you want to learn more. The research is actually quite fascinating.

It’s also interesting to note that in many cases (not all, certainly), children are better off staying with their biological parents, even when the home situation is not ideal. Even when their foster homes are very good.[1] While much of this seems counter-intuitive, it’s hard to argue with the science behind it.

That’s why it’s so important that removals aren’t just routine; we want judges to really consider whether the child needs to be removed, or whether they would be better served by keeping the children at home, and receiving services there. Our judges do a great job with this, but it’s a difficult balancing act, and one in which many probably prefer to err on the side of caution. They are much more likely to be harshly criticized for not removing a child that ends up seriously injured or dead than they are removing a child that would have been safe at home.

I’m going to leave that difficult decision up to the court. My role as a Case Navigator™ is to simply do what I can to help the families get healthy so that they can be reunited in a safe and timely fashion whenever possible (while acknowledging it’s not always possible.

Because that’s clearly what the kids want.

[1] http://www.mit.edu/~jjdoyle/doyle_jpe_aug08.pdf

Scarcity and Tunneling

The book Scarcity is not about child welfare. Yet the concepts are so applicable to parents in CINA cases that I always recommend it to people working in this field. Authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir dig into how people behave when they are suffering scarcity in some area, whether money, time, food, or anything else. One of the biggest discoveries is that scarcity stretches the cognitive and emotional “bandwidth” of people, resulting in, among other things, tunneling.

Of course, “nothing is all bad, and nothing is all good.” In it’s highest form, we call tunneling “focus.” Focus is what helps us get things done, while avoiding distractions. In it’s lowest form, however, it can cause us to focus on the immediate “bonfire,” while ignoring the embers that will burst into flames if we do not pay attention to them as well.

An example of this occurred in one of my CASA cases. Mom missed a hearing because she had a housing appointment. People were stunned. Did she not know how important it was for her to attend hearings? Did she not care about getting her kids back? Did she not understand that skipping hearings could result in the court terminating her parental rights to her children? What was she thinking?!

While I don’t know for sure what she was thinking, my guess is it went something like this:

            These housing appointments are difficult to get; they told me I HAVE to be there. If I don’t go, I will lose my housing assistance, which means I will be homeless. And if I’m homeless, there’s no WAY I can get my kids back. My ex-husband is abusive, so I don’t want him to have custody of the kids. I’ll get this resolved, and then deal with the fallout of missing the hearing later. Surely the judge will understand…

 Whether she is right or wrong about all of this, you can at least see how her reasoning makes sense in the context of the tunnel. We’re not quite so stunned at her decision to skip the hearing.

But what if, instead of trying to go back and “fix” her absence, hoping the judge will “understand,” there was someone who could help her proactively find a solution? What if there was someone who could “loan” her some bandwidth to put out not only the bonfire (the housing issue), but also tend to the embers (the hearing). What if there was someone who could pull the hearing back into her “tunnel” so she would understand the urgency and importance of attending the hearing?

That’s one of the advantages of the Task Letter used by Case Navigator™. After the letter goes to the parent, a Case Navigator™ follows up. One of the questions I ask is, “Do you foresee any problems doing the things in the ‘Tasks to complete/continue this month section?” If Mom knows about the housing conflict, she can share that with her Case Navigator™ who can help her resolve the conflict so Mom can take care of both. The Case Navigator™ can help Mom see options she might not otherwise see. And notifications ahead of the hearing can help alert everyone to a potential problem, again, before it arises.

The problem is that it is always more difficult to retroactively fix a problem, rather than proactively solve it. It often results in extensions or continuances, which research shows makes it more likely that the parent’s rights will eventually be terminated.

Is that the outcome we want? Do we really want mom to forever lose her children simply because she didn’t know how to solve a simple scheduling problem and chose “wrong” by someone else’s standards?


A month or so ago, a friend asked me to recommend four books for college business students. “Four?!” I asked incredulously. “Only four?!” He laughed and told me to recommend whatever I wanted, and he would cut the list down to a manageable size. But that got me thinking.

If I could only recommend one book, to virtually anyone, what book would that be?

And that decision only took me a second to make. Resilience by Eric Greitens. The book has such wisdom, such encouragement, and plain old common sense. I am reading it for the third time, and every time I find something new to highlight.

For a bit of background, Greitens initially did a lot of work as a relief worker in Bosnia, Cambodia, and other war-torn places. But rather than focus on the terrible conditions that existed, he chose to look at the human experience in a rather Viktor Frankle-like way, asking the question, “Who not only survives, but actually thrives, despite the horrendous circumstances?” In other words, it was in these early experiences that he began sowing the seeds of his work in resilience.

But it was also during one of these experiences that he made another discovery; a “strongly worded letter of protest” was not enough to change many of these situations. It wasn’t enough to have a heart of service; sometimes a “fist” was necessary to stop evil people from creating these situations in the first place. That led him to sign up and become a Navy SEAL. It also led to his book, The Heart and the Fist. And again, more lessons in resilience. But not just resilience during military service, but also resilience after returning home. He founded an organization called The Mission Continues, which works with returning vets to give them a sense of purpose; to remind them that they are needed.

But 300 words into this post, you’re probably wondering what a book recommendation has to do with Case Navigator™, especially a book that’s not about child welfare, specifically.

Most people in this field have heard of the ACEs study. ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. The more of these a child has, the more likely they will have significant issues not just in childhood, but also into adulthood. A wide variety of problems, ranging from substance abuse, to domestic violence, to health issues such as heart disease and diabetes. Because Case Navigator™ works with parents post-removal, there’s not much I can do about the ACEs that have already occurred.

Interestingly, though, one of the things that can help offset these ACEs is—resilience.

Resilience gives us hope in the face of adversity. It helps us look beyond the current circumstances, knowing that things can change for the better; we won’t always be in this current, negative situation. It helps us realize that the “whole world” and all the people in it aren’t like this current place or the people in it. And most importantly, it helps us take steps to move forward and not get stuck in that place.

If you clicked on the link above to take the ACEs assessment, scrolling down further will take you to another one: the resilience assessment. Anyone can help children build resilience, because it’s more about having people love you, support you, and encourage you. The more of these people you have in your life, the better; but even one individual helping to build up a child and be a resource for them to go to if they have trouble is invaluable.

Case Navigator™ can help parents stay on track with their case plan and court orders. We can lend “bandwidth” so parents can make better decisions, which will lead to better outcomes. And hopefully all of those things will help parents help their children become more resilient (and maybe them as well). But we will be even more successful if you will help us by simply pouring into the life of a child—any child (because you never know who needs it, or what’s going on in a child’s or family’s life). You don’t have to formally volunteer for an organization (although if you want to, I would highly recommend CASA).

I’m also not suggesting that you have to “fix” anything. Just be there for a child. Listen to him. Encourage her. Lift him up. Empathize with her. Ask him how school is going. These things cost nothing but a bit of your time and attention, yet can have a huge impact in the life of a child and the adult they are becoming.

And that, hopefully, will lead to lower ACEs scores for their children.

Want World Peace?

Mother (now Saint) Teresa has said many profound things, and interestingly, it was often the very “smallness” of the idea that made it so profound. One such quote was this: “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.”

That seems very small, right? Makes you want to say, “No, no, world peace! BIG!” Especially in our global world, with its enormous problems, it feels like focusing on our families is not nearly “enough.” And while we may be able to acknowledge the value of loving our family, and the impact that might ultimately have on the world (think “pebbles dropped in a pond that send out far reaching ripples”), the speed of life these days makes this plan seem agonizingly slow.

But the problem with our “fast fixes” is that they don’t last. They’re a bandage on a gaping wound that needs stitches or even major surgery.

And sometimes there are issues that we want fixed, but we don’t want to do the fixing. We’re all happy to volunteer and donate when we’re talking about things like feeding hungry children, finding a cure for cancer, or providing help for those who are caught up in natural disasters like hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes. But when you ask someone to help parents who have had their children removed due to allegations of abuse, a change comes over them. Their eyes narrow, their voice takes on a harder edge, and even their body language reflects their distaste. They don’t want to help “those” people. They want to punish them, saying things like “they deserve to have their children removed.”

I get it. We don’t like it when the very people who should be protecting children are actually hurting or neglecting them. And hungry children, desperately ill people, and those devastated by natural disasters are easier to help because none of those things are their “fault.” When parents abuse their children or neglect them, we’re less likely to want to help, because we think the situation in which they find themselves is their fault. Certainly their decisions led them to where they are now. But things aren’t always what they seem.

People who grow up in high functioning, resilient, well-resourced families do not often end up abusing their children.[1] They are less likely to engage in the substance abuse that is a part of a significant number of neglect cases. No, they usually grow up to be healthy adults. Not always, of course, but their chances of that are much greater than a child who grows up amidst domestic violence, drugs, and/or poverty. Their options are narrower, their “models” less positive. And while it is certainly possible to grow up in that environment and still be successful (no matter how you define that), it is considerably more difficult.

I recently re-read the book Scarcity, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. The book is not about child welfare, but rather about how we make decisions when there is scarcity in our life, whether that’s scarcity of money, time, or even calories (for someone who is dieting). Many of our clients in juvenile child welfare cases deal with a number of scarcities in their life, which causes them to “tunnel.” In other words, they only have enough cognitive/intellectual “bandwidth” to focus on the most immediate and pressing needs, even if those decisions will result in problems down the road (i.e., outside the tunnel).

A perfect example of this showed up in one of my CASA cases a few months ago. Mom missed a hearing (which is almost never a good thing) because she had a meeting with people about housing. People were shaking their heads—didn’t she know how important it was for her to attend the hearing?! But here’s what Mom was probably doing. If she doesn’t have housing, or is about to be homeless, that problem is squarely within her tunnel. It’s the biggest fire she is immediately facing, and all her mental resources have to go towards solving that. She will deal with the fallout of the missed hearing “later” —when that has now appeared in the crisis tunnel.

Of course, if you’ve done any work in juvenile (or other) court recently, you are also aware of trauma-informed care, which is simply the acknowledgment that when we have been traumatized (recently or in the past), we may not react well to similar situations. For example, a parent who was removed as a child himself may be re-traumatized when he finds himself back in the courtroom—this time as the parent. It becomes difficult to hear or understand what is being said. Trauma stretches your cognitive bandwidth so thin, it becomes difficult to make good decisions.

And when you combine this reduced “bandwidth” with tunneling, it’s no wonder that things don’t go well. The problem is, we don’t see all the background things that led to this outcome, and that aren’t the “fault” of the parent; we only see the result, and immediately seek to punish the parent, rather than help them.

This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be any accountability. There is a difference between an excuse and a reason. If you want to read my take on those differences, you can go here, but in a nutshell, an excuse is an explanation offered for the behavior and as a way to get someone “off the hook.” A reason, on the other hand, may have the exact same explanation, but is not offered to avoid accountability; it is instead used to help determine what to do differently in the future, or to solve the immediate problem.

And here’s something else you may not know. Counterintuitively, perhaps, children love their parents even when they have abused or neglected them. They want to be reunited with those parents. And research suggests that in many cases, children are better off with their biological parents than in foster care, even when the biological parents are not “ideal.” Not always. But often enough that we need to pay attention to that when we are making long-term decisions for the children.

And consider this: when we say that parents “deserve” to have their children removed, we are also saying that children “deserve” to lose their parents. Everyone is “punished,” not just the parents.

If we truly want to help children, one of the best ways to do that is to help their parents get healthy.

Will that lead to world peace, as Mother Teresa suggests? Well, we can’t force people to love their families. But maybe if we did a better job of loving our “neighbor,” our neighbor could do a better job loving his or her children. I tend to think it’s a good idea to cast that pebble in the pond of civilization. The first ripples might just be generationally healthier families. That will lead to healthier communities, workplaces, and schools. Which can, in turn, radiate out even farther to states and nations. It’s not immediate, but it’s also not just a bandage.

Will you do your part towards creating world peace?

[1] For more on this, go to https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/

5 Habits to Change Your Life Direction

I have some friends, family members, and CASA families looking to make some big changes in their life. Maybe it’s a career change. Maybe it’s finally becoming free of substance abuse. Maybe it’s changing their life in order to get their kids back. No matter what the change is, one thing I’ve learned is that often, the bigger and more complex the problem or change, the smaller and simpler the solution needs to be.

Both changes and problems typically deal with changes in habits. In my own life, I’ve had the most success when I have not focused on the big goal (which can sometimes feel overwhelming), but instead on the small habits that will lead to success. Here are five pieces of advice I would offer:

  1. Focus on one thing you can do everyday that will lead to success. When I wanted to write a book, I decided to write at least 2000 words every day. If sobriety is your issue, don’t focus on being sober for the rest of your life; focus on being sober today (or this hour, or even for the next five minutes). You can do almost anything for at least five minutes. Then do another five minutes. Unemployed? Commit to sending out one new resume, one new application, or meeting one new person every day. Practice one new parenting skill.
  2. Focus on lead measures, not lag. Closely related to the first one is this one. A lag measure is your goal. In the world of weight loss, losing 25 lbs. is a lag measure. The problem is, you don’t know whether you’ve accomplished that goal until you step on the scale; at that point, it’s too late to influence the outcome. A lead measure, on the other hand, is something you can do that is predictive of success, and that you influence. Walking for 30 minutes every day and monitoring reducing your caloric intake every day (perhaps via WeightWatchers™ Point System) is a lead measure. It’s predictive (if you do those two things, you will lose weight), and you influence those behaviors. If you are successful in the lead measures, you will inevitably be successful in the lag (i.e., weight loss).
  3. Change the environment. Don’t rely on willpower alone. There is a significant body of research that says you will have a much more difficult time succeeding if you rely solely on willpower.[1] But small tweaks to your environment can have surprisingly big results. In the weight loss example above, you might switch to smaller plates (yes, that actually works). Avoid temptation by not having cookies and soda in your house. Trying to quit smoking? My mother-in-law was a smoker for years. One of her habits was a cigarette after dinner. All she had to do was turn to her left; there was a cabinet with her cigarettes, lighter, and an ashtray right there. Without thinking or “deciding,” she would automatically reach for her cigarettes after dinner. If she had moved those things to a less convenient location, it would have broken that pattern. It would have given her enough time to at least think about whether she wanted to “choose” to have a cigarette. And if she had established a different habit (putting on her sneakers before dinner to make it easy to take an after dinner walk, perhaps), it would have made it even easier to override the smoking habit.

Sometimes, changing the environment means moving. A beloved cousin of mine who was addicted to meth moved half a continent away, to a place where he knew no one. As long as he lived here, he knew where to get the drug, and struggled to overcome the addiction. But in the new state, he didn’t know those things, and he didn’t know the people who were doing/selling the drug, so it was easier to resist.

Sometimes we have to change friends. We need to surround ourselves with people who are living the way we want to live, not the way we have been living. That’s not a condemnation of the other person; it’s simply an acknowledgment that if we want to change, we can’t surround ourselves with people who are still doing the things we no longer want to do. It’s too hard to resist getting sucked back into that life, especially if we’re feeling particularly vulnerable on a certain day.

  1. Everyday (yes, every day) write down three things for which you are grateful, no matter how small they may seem. When you focus on what is good, rather than what is not, you begin to look for the good. Your brain literally begins to rewire itself.[2] Sometimes your gratitude might be for small things, or things we typically take for granted—a great cup of coffee, the fact that you can see, a sunny day. Other days you may have big things for which to be grateful—a new job, a new baby, or 30 days of sobriety. They all
  2. Finally, take time every day to just sit quietly, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. If you are a person of faith, pray. If you are not, you can meditate (slow down your breathing), or simply sit quietly. You will be better able to center yourself, think more clearly, and make better decisions simply by sitting quietly every day. If you’re not used to doing this, you will not be able to do it right away. Your mind will race, you’ll fidget, and you’ll suddenly remember a dozen or more things you “need” to do, which will “only take a minute.” That’s ok. Those things can usually wait for 15 minutes. Eventually, this new “habit” will become indispensible.

Regardless of what changes you are seeking to make, or why, the how is the universally important execution piece. Develop the habits that support the goal, be grateful, and take time to be quiet, and you will be amazed at the change in your life—not immediately, perhaps, but over time.

Yes, it’s hard. But as the quote goes, “The hard is what makes it great.”

Go be great.



[1] I would strongly suggest you read the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhrigg.

[2] A great book for this is The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. He also has a hilarious TED Talk on the same subject.

How Easy Is It, Really?

A few years ago, my husband had another, what we refer euphemistically to as, “health adventure.”

We were driving home to Des Moines, Iowa, from Washington DC, where we had watched our daughter graduate from American University with her masters in International Development. We stopped at a Wendy’s in Ohio, and a few hours later, Randy fell unconscious and began vomiting profusely. His eyes rolled back in his head.

As you might imagine, it was a terrifying few moments—well, for me. He has no recollection of the event.

At the time, I drove a Saturn Aura that had On*Star. I knew it had On*Star, but my stress level was so high at that particular moment that I couldn’t remember that I had On*Star. I grabbed my phone, and dialed 9-1-1, because I couldn’t remember to ask SIRI to do it. And then I misdialed, and couldn’t remember how to backspace.

When the 9-1-1 operator answered, I gave her the information I had, and was a bit testy with her when she asked me three times how old my husband was. I later learned that I was “cutting out,” because of where I was. Apparently US Cell is in the middle of anywhere, but not in the middle of nowhere.

The reason I tell you all this, is to illustrate what trauma can do to your cognitive functioning. As traumas go, this one was relatively short-lived and had a happy ending. But you don’t know that at the time. All you know is that something very bad is happening. When that happens, there are so many things coming at you that need immediate processing (“Where am I? Where is an exit? Is he breathing?”), that cognitive functioning and emotional patience regarding everything else slows way down (memory of On*Star, Siri, and where the back button is on the phone, and getting short with the 9-1-1 operator).

It’s like that for our parents in juvenile court.

Having your child removed from your care by DHS is traumatic, no matter whether you “consent” to the removal or the child is simply removed by the police. If you were a CINA (Child in Need of Assistance) when you were a child, you are now living through that trauma all over again. Talk about a trigger. And you may have other trauma in your life, like domestic violence. You may have substance abuse issues, or mental health issues. If you’re poor, scarcity has also affected your brain and how you process events.

And now you have to focus on what DHS and the courts want you to do in order to get your child back.

Your attorney explains what you need to do, as does the judge and the DHS worker. But you simply do not have any more cognitive bandwidth to process those things. You can’t remember when your next hearing is. You know the kids are supposed to go to therapy, but your car just broke down and you don’t have the money to fix it, so how are you supposed to do that? Your boss isn’t very understanding about all the time off you’re asking for in order to attend court, family team meetings, substance abuse treatment and therapy.

Maybe you’ve been drinking to escape all the pain, and now, suddenly, you have to completely abstain. But you’re physically addicted—it’s not as easy as just “deciding” not to drink, or “choosing” your children over your addiction. And the pain you’re trying to escape has increased significantly. You have all these people in your life; you don’t know who they are, what the acronyms stand for (CASA? FSRP? DHS – well, you know that one), and what they all do.

You have a court hearing, but the housing assistance people have scheduled an appointment for you to meet with them to try to get housing, and if you don’t go, you might not get housing. That seems to be the most pressing need, so you go to that meeting and skip the hearing; you can’t be two places at once, and you will deal with the legal stuff later. Scarcity experts call this “tunneling.” And besides—when you do attend the hearings, you don’t really understand what’s going on. The attorneys do most of the talking, and then the judge says some things, but you’re so stressed out, you just can’t take it all in.

Are you stressed out just reading that?

Too often as a CASA Coach and attorney, I hear people outside the “system” say things like this:

  • How could anyone choose drugs (including alcohol) over their kids?
  • Why don’t they just go to therapy? It’s not rocket science!
  • I have no sympathy for people who abuse their kids. They deserve to have them taken away.
  • What a monster.

Maybe you’ve said or thought some of those things yourself. The thing I tell people is this: what is easy for you is not easy for these parents, just like remembering I had On*Star was not easy when I was in the middle of a crisis and thought my spouse had just died.

These parents aren’t “choosing” drugs over their kids; drugs are choosing them. Addiction is a horrible, horrible thing; it’s a physical disease as well as a mental and emotional one once you are hooked. For most people, it’s not as easy as simply saying, “Ok, I’m not going to do drugs anymore.” Their physical body betrays that kind of a willpower-only strategy.

Yes, they may have chosen to do drugs the first time, but often that’s an escape from the pain in their life. The temptation comes at a time of vulnerability, from people who are not good role models. And most people think they will be the exception to addiction; they can quit any time. And most people are wrong; but everyone thinks they will be the exception.

What about therapy? Going to therapy is easy when you have reliable transportation, a flexible work schedule, and aren’t feeling overwhelmed by other things. Most of our parents are not in this category. They may know what they are supposed to do; they just can’t figure out how to make that happen.

This third belief has a few problems. Yes, we all want to protect our most vulnerable little people, but most of their parents aren’t coming from good parenting role models, stable homes and plenty of resources. And if they have substance abuse, mental health, or domestic violence issues, they just aren’t as able to cope with life and being a parent. Again, that “bandwidth” is stretched too thin; something has to give. Most of the parents that come through our courts are not physically and/or sexually abusing their children. It’s usually neglect/denial of critical care. And even then, it is rarely the kind of neglect that you see on the 10:00 news. In fact, when it’s a substance abuse issue, the children are sometimes not even around when it happens; they might be at school or visiting a friend

In other words, when the event that caused the removal happened, the children have not been physically injured at all. The concern is that they could be injured in the future, when the parents are, as a recent example, passed out on heroin with their child in the back seat of the car.

One final comment on the statement about parents who “deserve” to have their kids removed. We often talk about taking kids from their parents almost as a punishment to the parents, or because the parents don’t deserve their kids. But removal means not just that we are taking kids from parents, but that we are taking parents from kids. Do the kids “deserve” that separation? True, it may be in their best interest, at least temporarily. But the research shows that kids are usually better off with their biological parents, even if the situation is not ideal. Usually. Not always.

Finally, it’s easy to call people who hurt children names. Often, there’s a sort of superior, yet relieved sense of, “At least I’m not that bad.” Yet I always wonder what happened to these adults when they were children. And I think about the kids currently in the system; if they grow up and have kids who are removed from their care, will we remember that they were abused or neglected as a child? Will we have compassion, remembering their difficult childhood? Or will we now condemn them, simply because they are now adults and should “know better”?

Instead of condemning, I’d rather help fix the situation.

What if we helped parents become better parents? What if we helped them take full advantage of all the services DHS has to offer them when their child is removed, to hopefully become healthy enough to parent their child safely and effectively? What if we helped them understand what they are being asked to do, why they are being asked to do it, and when they need to complete things? What if we helped them get organized, helped them prioritize, and helped them comply with their case plan?

We can’t always prevent abuse. But we can respond differently, with compassion and help, instead of judgment and punishment. We can work to fix the situation, help parents and their kids (without becoming “helicopter” helpers), and hopefully make a positive difference in the lives of these families.

What’s the Difference Between a Case Navigator™ and…?

While talking to a number of people about Case Navigator™, one of the questions I often get is, “Isn’t that the role of                 ?” The blank has been filled in with DHS, CASA, Parent Partners, and the attorney and Guardian ad litem. I decided it might be helpful to provide some clarity and distinction between what a Case Navigator™ does, and what everyone else does.


The county attorney represents DHS. Private attorneys (who may be court appointed) represent the parents, which is who the Case Navigator™ works with.

DHS provides services and creates the case plan, which determines what the parent must do to have the children returned to his/her home.

Case Navigator™ does not request, provide, or require services, nor do we assist in creating the case plan. We focus on educating the client (terms, acronyms, process, logistics and expectations) and helping her or him stay on track in order to reduce delays/continuances and move to safe reunification sooner. We are not a part of DHS.


CASAs are trained volunteers who work with one family at a time. They advocate on behalf of the child, and observe and report their observations to the court.

The Case Navigator™ works with multiple clients (rather than just one family), works with the parent (rather than advocating for the child), and makes no report to the court or DHS.


FSRP workers typically assist with visitation (transportation and/or supervision) and parenting issues.

The Case Navigator™ does not assist with visitation or parenting issues, focusing instead on assisting with the education and accountability pieces.

Parent Partners

Parent Partners work through DHS to provide mentoring to parents in juvenile (CINA) court. They have “been there, done that,” and have been successfully reunified with their children. However, they can only speak about their own experience, which may have been different than the one their “mentees” are experiencing.

While the Case Navigator™ certainly assists the client in working towards a safe reunification by explaining and answering questions, he or she is not a mentor, and does not have the same perspective as a Parent Partner. His or her perspective and experience is much broader, and may include a background in law, education, or mental health/social work.


An attorney provides legal advice and representation in court and Family Team Meetings.

The Case Navigator™ does not provide legal advice or legal representation of any kind. The Case Navigator™ provides assistance with education/procedural issues and accountability.

The Guardian ad litem (GAL)

The Guardian ad Litem, or GAL, is an attorney who represents the legal interests of the child(ren) who is involved in the juvenile (CINA) court. His or her focus is to legally advocate for the best interests of the child(ren).

The Case Navigator™ does not work with the child(ren)—s/he works with the parent. And again, the Case Navigator™ does not provide legal advice or representation, but rather education and accountability.

Questions? Click here to send me an email.


The Birth of Case Navigator™

Because I am a CASA Coach, I don’t typically attend hearings; my CASAs do that, unless they have a conflict and can’t attend, or if it’s their first hearing. In those cases, I do go.

A few months ago, I was sitting outside Judge Witt’s courtroom, waiting for a hearing to start, when the DHS caseworker sat down across the “hall” from me, with the maternal grandmother in the case (the children were placed with here). He told her, in very professorial tones, that this was the “adjudication” hearing. She paused, and then very reasonably asked, “What does that mean?”

And he very unreasonably, could not answer her.

To be fair, he was a brand new, “baby” DHS worker. And yet, I remember sitting there thinking, “Not everyone needs to know what an adjudication hearing is, but you should.”

Out of that experience (and a few others), Case Navigator™ was born.

I don’t offer legal advice—that’s what the lawyers are there for. My role is to work alongside these dedicated lawyers to help make sure their clients understand the process. In future blogs, I’ll talk about why that’s so critically important in these cases, but for now let me answer a question that you might be asking:

Why isn’t the attorney doing that?

It’s a very reasonable question, if you don’t know a lot about the process. Most juvenile law attorneys are court appointed. From a financial standpoint, that means they are paid an insultingly low hourly fee to do extraordinarily important work. Most court appointed juvenile attorneys could make 3-4 times that rate in private pay cases. Not only that, but the overall fee is capped (although if it’s a more complex case, the attorney can request a fee above the cap, and may be awarded those additional fees). What this means if you do the math is that the attorney has only 25 hours to “spend” on the case and still stay under the cap.

That’s not a lot of time for cases that typically go at least a year.

With regard to process, then, one of two things usually happens to a somewhat varying degree. Either the attorney doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining the process (which isn’t fair to the client), or the attorney does spend the time, but doesn’t or can’t bill for it (which isn’t fair to the attorney). If they can instead shift the process part to me, they can spend those precious 25 hours on the legal issues of the case.

Your next logical question might ask how I get paid.

Another very reasonable question. And one that is taking a bit longer to answer than I first anticipated. More on that topic next time.

For now, know that if it is a private pay case (whether juvenile, family law, or something else), the client pays my fee. It’s the court-appointed cases that are a bit trickier.

Ultimately, having me on the case allows for more and better-informed clients, which leads to better decision-making, and ultimately a better outcome.

Who wouldn’t want that?