One of the areas of practice many Family Law attorneys end up exploring is Dependency Law – you can think of Dependency Law as involving custodial disputes that are so bad the police and social workers get involved, and the Court removes a child (or children) from a dangerous environment.
Those cases often attract or involve Family Law attorneys, because they deal with custody and there’s significant crossover in the law between the Family Code, the Welfare & Institutions Code, and the cases decided under both Codes.
And – frankly – Dependency Law is tempting. Everyone wants to rescue kids, right?
Oh, God. It broke my heart.
The reality is that the people who come to a private attorney in Dependency cases are coming to you because their kids have been taken away by the State, and the person in your office wants the kid(s) returned. They don’t like what the “free” attorney, appointed for them by the Court at no charge to them, is telling them. Generally they’ve cleaned up pretty well to meet you, and have a great tale to tell about how “This isn’t right.”
I bought that story a few times. I did a good job. Got the kids back for my clients – and I’ve regretted it each time. And I will never, ever forget the one client who cured me of any desire to work in the area of Dependency.
He came to my office with his mom – we’ll call her Grandma. She was going to pay my bill. Dad was clean, he said, and sober. He’d changed his life. He’d been involved with a woman, a few years back, and they got into drugs, and got caught shoplifting. His girlfriend (we’ll call her Mom) was pregnant; she got a diversion program and he got thrown in jail for a bit before being released. His probation terms required him to stay away from Mom.
By the time the kid was two years old, Mom had established a pattern of calling him up: “Let’s be a family,” “I love you,” “Your daughter needs you,” stuff like that. He’d run into her arms, spend time with the kid; everything was awesome (every time) until she got mad and called the cops. Each time he went to jail for a couple weeks for violation of probation.
When Dad and Grandma walked into my office, he had been questioned in the physical abuse of the daughter – the kid’s arm had been broken, Mom waited a week to take her to the hospital, and she had bruises everywhere. She said my client did it… but he’d been in jail at the time of the injury. He could not possibly have done this.
He was clean. I made him take a drug test right in my office and he was negative. Grandma vouched for him. The child was in foster care – Dad wanted the kid, didn’t want this gorgeous little girl adopted out.
I bought it, hook, line, and sinker. I got involved. Too involved, perhaps. When the legal fees went beyond Grandma’s ability to pay, I advanced fees and kept working, At the end of the case, six months later, my client got the kid. The exit order from the Dependency Court gave Dad sole legal and sole physical custody, with NO VISITATION OF ANY KIND to the child’s mom.
The hugs! The tears! The gratitude! He’s going to continue to be a better man for his daughter!
Three months after that exit order was made, Grandma called me, frantically concerned for her granddaughter. My former client, Dad, was back on drugs. He had the kid isolated, wasn’t letting Grandma talk to the child or see her. Dad was emaciated and not seeing to his own needs. She wanted me to help her get the child from Dad and into Grandma’s custody. I explained I could not – that because I had represented Dad in a fight for custody of that child, I was precluded from representing Grandma in a case against Dad in a further custody fight for the same kid.
When I got off the phone with Grandma, I called my client. He answered the phone. Without disclosing the content of the conversation, I can unconditionally state that he was higher than a kite, slurring his words…
I hung up, horrified. I had my paralegal call Grandma, with three names of good attorneys who could help her save her grandchild.
I don’t know how that child’s story ended. I never will know. But I will never forget that I used my law degree, my talents, and my resources to remove a child from a safe foster home with good prospective adoptive parents – and put that child in danger. Yes, yes, yes, the law permitted it – parents do have constitutional rights – but… I did it. Me. I extended that child’s agony and suffering.
Had I known more about the basic psychology of an addict, I would never have gotten tangled up in that. An addict can clean up, it seems, just long enough to obtain a goal: often that goal is the return of their kid. Once they have attained the goal, “repossessed” the kid, the motivation to stay clean withers. And once the State and social workers are out of the picture, most times that addict goes right back to their addiction. The child is in danger, again.
Attorneys who practice in Dependency Court have to live with that. Heartbreak is part of their daily lives. They serve the law, and the law serves to protect the constitutional rights of all parents with regard to their kids. Those attorneys live for the success stories, for the actual rescues, but those are more the exception than the rule, I think. Somehow those attorneys return to that brutally disappointing practice of law day in and day out. God help them.
I love the area of law in which I do practice. While I will never again represent a parent in Dependency proceedings, I also work hard to ensure I’m not using my talents, experience, resources to put any child in danger or at risk in our Family Law practice. Yes, someone has to represent the shitty parents – but it’s not going to be me, or the Firm I manage.
Never, ever again.