Sunday, February 22, 2009

Haunting Work

The lawyers in my firm do a lot of work as Guardians Ad Litem. A Guardian Ad Litem represents dependent and neglected children in court proceedings and is focused solely on serving the best interests of the child. Sometimes, temporary custody is awarded to a family member while the child's parents work on whatever issues they need to work on to get their child back (e.g. drug dependency issues, domestic violence, etc).

Sometimes, the parents are beyond saving and in those cases we move straight for termination of parental rights and place the child in foster care. We continue to represent the child until permanency is achieved (adoption) but in the interim, we visit the child in placement and that part of my job has been really tough.

On my first day of work, I did back-to-back home visits of children in placement. Both children were with family members and, I thought, both were doing well. Other people in my office disagreed with one of my assessments and at least one child has been removed from the care of her relative and placed into a foster home. Maybe the child should have been removed and maybe she shouldn't have been - the decision to do either is not easy - but the basis on which the child was removed didn't sit well with me.

I cannot not say too much but the bottom line is lawyers, for the sake of their clients must consider cultural difference when working in certain fields like immigration, family law, and yes, child protection. Ignorance of those cultural differences can lead lawyers to misinterpret actions and facts.

I have talked about my background a lot: female minority raised in New Mexico. I feel I understand Latino culture much better than my Caucasian counterpart, who was raised in the Midwest, and who accompanied me on the home visit. So when I am in a Latino persons home, going through their closets, peeking into their bedrooms, and asking all sorts of personal questions, I am not surprised he is defensive.

I don't automatically think "Oh, this person is defensive because he or she has something to hide" I think "Latinos are private people and prefer to handle problems within their family and community therefore it is probably very difficult to have strangers in their home asking pointed questions about how they are with their own family." I get it.

But as a newbie, not even a baby attorney yet, who was tagging along with a more experienced person, my opinion was disregarded. That child was removed to foster care and it haunts me. And I wonder: can I really do this without having an emotional breakdown every single week?

4 comments:

Rayne of Terror said...

I do child support enforcement and we have to call child protective services sometimes based on what we learn in court and it doesn't get any easier. I have only been at it 8 months and I can see family law is not right for me.

zuska said...

I work on as much pro bono as I can in the course of my large-firm job, and I have encountered similar, although thus far less devastating, situations. I was very grumpy on Friday in reaction to a co-worker's lack of willingness to look outside of his/her own itty bitty lens.

gudnuff said...

Sounds very, very difficult. My husband has offered to do Guardian Ad Litem with me as a team; he says he knows of another married couple who work together as Guardians Ad Litem like that, the two of them sharing the same case. Seems like it would help offset the emotional distress to work with a like-minded person. All I'm saying here is that I can imagine how upsetting this was for you. Not sure I would even think about applying to be a GAL if I didn't have a like-minded partner in mind to do it with. I sure hope that working together as a team is possible. Can you choose to do this kind of work at some other point in your career rather than now? Do you have to stick it out for the rest of the semester or something?

LawSchoolMom said...

@gudnuff: No, it's not a semester thing. It's a regular part of my future firm's caseload but, yes, I can do some other kind of work. I thought I would give GAL work a try to see if I liked it but I'm pretty sure it's not for me. I won't give up on it just yet, though.