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?





Maslow’s Hierarchy and Juvenile Court
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