In cases involving custody and/or foster care placements, there is a preceding ‘allegation’ of abuse or neglect of a child. A lot of things can go wrong in these cases, even if an attorney has been assigned to the case. As are cases in criminal courts involving adults, court-appointed attorneys are an entitlement for those who cannot afford one.
In family courts, the same is true for parents and children. A court-appointed attorney is provided by the courts to parents who can’t afford to retain one on their own. It is both a right and a choice. A child will always have an advocate-third party, neutral, in custody cases, to protect the child’s best interests.
In the courts, the presence of an attorney can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, they can effectively present your side of the story to the court, the judge. If done successfully, your side wins. On the other hand, these attorneys usually have large caseloads, and tend to spend most of their workdays going from courtroom to courtroom, case to case, client to client.
Sometimes, they are given as little as 10 minutes to prepare for a case before appearing and pleading your case before the judge. Court appointed lawyers, in family courts in this instance, have different levels of knowledge and experience in family law. In states like New York, one can graduate from law school, pass the bar exam and immediately be placed on a list of available attorneys in family court-having no experience at all outside of the classroom.
Straight out of law school, these young lawyers, will appear on behalf of low-income parents who, by no coincidence, happen to be predominantly black and brown-people of color. There are times when a case is heard and the attorney may have never spoken with the client. Hypothetically, a case could begin and end and custody could be decided without parental input. A parent could lose custody of his or her children without knowing the nature of the allegations of abuse or neglect. Parental rights could be terminated the same way.
Because someone has an attorney to represent them in court, it is assumed that they fully understand everything that is taking place inside and outside of that big scary room. A judge, also assuming this, assumes that an attorney has fully advised and consulted or conferred with their client. That judge can make life-changing decisions based upon that assumption.
It is extremely important that, if ever appearing in family court[or any other], you have done your own homework. First, make sure that you know your rights. Make sure that you know the exact nature of the allegations against you. If you have been appointed by attorney, make sure that you are given the time to speak with that attorney, and he or she has explained the situation and your options BEFORE final determinations and decisions are made which could affect your rights and access to your children.
If someone served you with a court summons to appear in court, or if you receive a postcard in the mail telling you of a scheduled court appearance date, make sure that you have been served properly. Note the day of the week and the time that someone attempts to hand the court papers to you. I won’t tell you here exactly what constitutes proper and improper service, but if you haven’t been served properly, make sure that this is the first thing you say to the judge or your attorney. Your case can be dismissed.
If your case involves child welfare, and there is the potential that you may lose custody of your children,it is expected that you will be afraid. That’s normal. Just do not let your fears stop you from advocating for yourself. Speak up, ask questions. Explain your circumstances fully, making it clear to the judge and/or your attorney.
Last, it is important that you understand this going in: The child welfare systems, was designed by white people. Historically, from the age of enslavement, black families were strategically separated from one another, with the aim of weakening their loyalties to one another and after slavery ended, denying them the full rights of citizenship. A form of terrorism, it was done not only to make money initially, but also to discourage, punish and force them into full submission. White people today, still dominate in influence and power in these systems, including the courts.
When you look around at other families in child welfare proceedings, the vast majority of families are black and brown. That is no coincidence; that is the result of years of systematically disrupting your families. The caseworkers, attorneys and judges aren’t all ‘bad’ people or are ‘out to get you’. However, they still are working within a system that is ‘broken’ for black people and black families.
The takeaway from this is that if ever in the midst of a family court, or child welfare matter, question everything-every allegation, every decision. Question the system itself. By the same token, reflect on your situation, your parenting practices, focusing on your relationship with your children as a provider, a role model and a safe space. Look within to possibly identify any areas that add validity to allegations. If you were misunderstood, ask yourself whether there were/ are alternatives. Can you do better? Could you have done better? In light of what you discover, explain that to the courts and your attorney and ask the system for assistance in doing so- for your family.
Whatever you do, do not allow anyone to take your children from you without a clear plan in place as to what you must do to get them back. No matter how busy your lawyer may be, their job is to be your advocate, not adversary. Make sure they do their job and that is what is right and best for your child and yourself-keep your family intact. Above all else, do not allow your attorney or the courts, as a system, to treat you as a disinterested, incompetent or unintelligent person without any input or options. You ARE a parent who does want the best for your children. You are a partner in every part of the process. ALWAYS BRING AN ATTORNEY TO COURT– and hold them accountable- to their responsibility to you and your child and NOT the system.