Juvenile Court Mission

John - Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania
Entered on December 24, 2008

Juvenile Court Mission:

Six years ago I made a major life change. I had practiced law, mostly as a litigator for over 20 years, and lost my job through downsizing. Instead of looking for a similar position, I took a job as a parent advocate attorney in a nonprofit program that provides free legal services to poor parents with children in the child welfare (CYF) and juvenile court systems. The pay is much lower than I had been accustomed to, but the rewards make up for the difference in compensation. In a sense, when I undertook this work, I took on a mission.

I have represented hundreds of parents, some of whom have been able to surmount the issues that interfered with caring for their children. There was the heroin addicted mother who surprised everybody by responding to the excellent professional help that is available. She found a deeper spiritual life and sobriety, and resumed the care of her children who had been headed for adoption. Some others have lost their children to the foster home and adoption systems.

Clients call me constantly about barriers to obtaining visits with their children or services that they need to become better parents. They complain that they and their children are more likely to become involved with CYF and Juvenile Court than more affluent families. They feel that laws emphasizing the child’s best interests are enforced by judges who are unlikely to have ever experienced poverty, or to know its effects firsthand. Poor mothers with babies and young children complain that they have to take two or three buses to get to a hospital or clinic. They complain about some overworked caseworkers who don’t return telephone calls, and who are supervised by jaded prior caseworkers who ”got moved up” because they lasted longer. They are stressed by extended and demoralizing court hearings at which child advocates outnumber, and seem to have more influence than, witnesses supporting the parents. And they can’t accept the unfortunate fact that children can and have been removed from parents based on hearsay. Parents angered by the system are required to attend anger management classes, but they tell me that their anger can only be relieved by “getting CYF out of our lives”.

My job is to listen, counsel, advocate, and file motions in court to obtain services, and especially to represent my clients in court hearings. There, county lawyers representing CYF and the children’s lawyers (KidsVoice) frequently take parents to task for their failings, sometimes based on false information. Due to the adversarial nature of these hearings, parents are at a great disadvantage without a competent lawyer.

I have always had positive feelings about being a lawyer, because I get to know people in their struggles to find success and meaning in life. I am entrusted with the responsibility to look into their hearts and see what’s important to them. This is especially true now. I represent some parents who are mentally retarded and incapable of caring for their children, and I see their sadness and grief as more capable parents adopt their children and transform them into strangers who call the adoptive parents “mommy and daddy”. Everybody in the court system cheers and celebrates these “happy adoptions”, while my clients die inside with feelings of incomprehensible tragedy. I am a witness to their loss, all the while knowing that their children may need more adequate care than they can give, because love isn’t always enough. Experiences like this take me into the heart of what it means to be human, and challenge me as a lawyer to do all I can to help my clients deal with what they perceive as injustice.

I’m thankful for having this mission. It challenges everything I have ever learned about law by deepening my commitment to justice, since poverty requires a different understanding of it than our society, and even our existing law, is ready for. Also it stretches my humanity and deepens my faith as I see both tested in my relationships with my clients.