Rise parent leaders Nancy Fortunato and Jeanette Vega presented to 400 attorneys at the American Bar Association conference for parent attorneys on April 25. Here is the text of their speech:
Thank you for the opportunity to present about parents’ perspectives on family court.
The main thing we want you to hear today is that parents come into court feeling powerless. When our children are removed, we feel the ultimate in powerlessness.
To get our children back, we need to find the power inside of us. We need to have the feeling that we are powerful enough to fight these charges, or change our lives.
Our relationship with our lawyer can be part of supporting us in feeling and becoming powerful enough to overcome our obstacles. Or it can be part of making us feel more powerless— and at the mercy of more powerful people.
We know you’re all dedicated to representing parents, and fighting for our rights.
Today, we’ll ask you to hear how parents say the court contributes to our feeling powerless – and our recommendations for how you, as attorneys, can make a positive difference.
First, we’ll talk about humanity—treating parents as people, not cases.
Second, we’ll talk about trauma—how parents’ histories of being victimized may affect us in the court process.
Third, we’ll talk about case and service planning—asking parents what will help them.
Fourth, we’ll talk about justice—parents want to understand the court process and feel it is fair.
Last, we’ll talk about voice—parents want a chance to speak for ourselves, and our lawyers can work with us to find ways to make our voices heard.
Too often, courts are places where parents feel small and unheard. We hope our stories and recommendations today show you how you can change that.
To begin, Nancy will share her story. Please think about powerlessness while you’re listening, and how her lawyer’s failure to communicate with her made her feel in court.
The first time I had to appear in Family Court—that week I did not sleep well and lost my appetite. I could not stop wondering how this was going to play out. But I knew one thing, I was not going to back down or lose this battle.
I went to court by myself. The place was packed. People in the hallways and in the courtroom. I had no knowledge of who my lawyer was going to be, and if I was going to have a chance to tell my story.
As I waited in the hallway, I heard someone calling my name. I saw a man coming toward me. I told him who I was. He said he was my lawyer and that he was going to represent me. Then he said, “Now let’s go inside. We are next to see the judge.” He did not ask me how I was doing, or tell me what was going to be expected of me.
Walking into the courtroom with him, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Where do I sit? And who are all these people?
When the hearing began, my son’s father’s lawyer started to say I was an unfit mother with a marijuana addiction. As she kept assassinating my character, I lost it. I stood up and shouted that this was all lies.
I walked out of the courtroom not even realizing it—my lawyer had to chase me down. He was upset and told me that I was foolish. My response was, “Well, why didn’t you stop her?” Looking back, I wonder why didn’t he prepare me? He could have told me what I was going to have to face. Instead, I was left feeling naked and blindsided.
My family court case lasted three years. At the end, I got custody of my son. But the process was not an easy one. The long wait, the back and forth coming into court, the constant worry and sleepless nights. Some of that wasn’t necessary.
Before this case, I had a lawyer through criminal court. That lawyer was really great. He always made himself available. He took the time to call me back, answer my texts and speak up for me in court. He also took the time to hear my concerns and what I wanted from my case. That constant communication was the key that made him a great lawyer.
I expected the same from my family court lawyer, but I was disappointed. Many times I would call or text him and I got no response until it was time to show up at the courthouse. That’s when he would quickly say a few words, just when it was time to face the judge.
My family court lawyer could have told me how long my case might last and what it could look like for me and my son. Too often, I felt that he was just scratching off his to-do list. I know this job is not easy, but I wished he would remember why he chose to represent parents.
I also wanted to speak to the judge personally, to tell her my situation because I felt my lawyer was not speaking for me as he should. But my lawyer always shushed me in court. He never explained why he did not want me to speak for myself.
I was shocked that he didn’t take the time to know me as an individual, a mother, provider, protector. He didn’t know how I looked out for my family’s well-being. If my lawyer didn’t know these things about me, how could the judge?
It wouldn’t have taken much for my lawyer to gain my trust and make my confusing and scary court experience more comfortable.
If my lawyer had been transparent with me, then maybe I would have felt reassured about him. If he had let me know what my choices were and gave me a sense of direction, I could have felt more prepared and in control.
Court is a place where we feel intense shame, stigma, anger and sadness. It’s a place we assume is biased against us. We want you to treat us as people, not cases. When we first meet, or early in our cases, take the time to introduce us to the process, and to you as a lawyer:
* Parents often say: “This system wants me to fail.” Help us understand how we can succeed.
* Tell us at the beginning that you’re proud to reunify families.
* Ask us how we’re feeling. Ask what we think we need to help our families, and how we can work together as a team.
* Take the time to explain to us who all the people in the courtroom are and what role they play.
* Show us that you care by giving us your time. Schedule meetings with us at your office before court to prepare. Answer our phone calls. If we have to meet in court, find a private area where we can speak.
Discussing personal details of our cases:
* It’s painful to hear yourself talked about in court like you’re not even there. Acknowledge our presence, including when you’re choosing court dates. Lawyers and case planners are not the only only people in the courtroom who have schedules and obligations.
* Please don’t discuss private details of our cases in public spaces. That undermines our trust.
* Please don’t call us “Mom” or “Dad,” or especially not “Birth Mom.”
* Addressing a parent by name shows that you see them as an individual and not just a case number. It’s also a basic way to give parents a sense of dignity and respect, which can start to build trust.
The court experience can be re-traumatizing for us, and sometimes so can interactions with our lawyers.
Trauma is shameful. We are not going to just open up about what happened to us. That takes trust. You can build trust by getting the little things right.
We also want the court system to be more skeptical of mental health evaluations.
* These evaluations don’t really show what’s going on with us because we’re afraid of them and try to hide what we’re going through.
* Evaluations where the clinician doesn’t know the parent well also undermine trust between parents and the court.
* As one mom put it: “When the system and the courts slap you with a diagnosis without even understanding the situation you’re in or listening to what you think you need, you feel stereotyped and discriminated against.”
* We need our lawyers to advocate for evaluations with better standards, for trauma screenings and for referrals to trauma-focused treatment programs—for the parent alone and for the parent and child.
Attorneys can learn from trauma-informed courts.
We did an interview with a judge and court improvement project in upstate New York who have developed a trauma-informed court:
* They told us: “Our standards for the court are: Safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration and empowerment.” These are important standards for lawyers to think about in all their contacts with clients.
* They said, “We try to work with families instead of doing things for them.” We ask: “What do you think needs to happen for your child to be safe returning home?”
* They also said, “Everyone in the courtroom tries to be friendly because if our attitude is punishing, we’re not going to make progress.”
A constant theme at Rise is that parents want to be heard, not fixed. We want the system to support us in making good decisions about what can help us and our children, not make those decisions for us. Even lawyers can fall into the trap of thinking they know better than a family.
We want information and choices:
* Ask us what we think we need, or our children need. Parents often feel that the service plan is imposed on them without their input.
* If we had more information about services we could make choices about what seems right to us. Our lawyers should know about the services, so they can work with us to come up with a plan that makes sense, and present that plan to the foster care agency or the judge.
* Lawyers often don’t consider the reality of parents’ lives when proposing or agreeing to services. Ask about our schedules and what else we have on our plate. Help set us up for success.
Be vigilant about parents getting referred to appropriate services:
* Question the agency’s service plan. Especially if you see angry parents, courts should not immediately order anger management. (As the former NYC commissioner said: “If a parent isn’t angry when her child is removed, we should worry.”) Our lawyers can remind judges that anger is often a normal response and ask agencies, “Has this parent been introduced to the parent advocate at her foster care agency?” or, “Is there a peer support group this parent can try as an alternative to anger management?”
* Allowing us to attend bad services makes us feel that what’s most important is a certificate, not that parents truly feel better and do better. It’s not helpful to act dismissive. When our lawyers say we should go to the mandated services just to “play the game” or “check the box,” we lose confidence in the justness of the system.
* Advocate for the judges in our cases to be specific in their orders not only about services but about the behavior changes the court expects to see if we’re going to reunify with our children.
We want our lawyers to show us how seriously they take the role of providing justice.
As a father wrote in Rise: “Before child welfare came into my family’s life, my understanding of the court system was that truth is found by careful and dutiful dissection in the courtroom; evidence is paramount and lies are dissolved. However, I have come to learn that in child welfare, there are flaws that tilt the scales of justice.
The family is considered guilty until proven innocent. The judge is the decider, no jury required. The child welfare system has funds for legal representation and experts, while most families do not. Children may be taken instantly, on little evidence, and their time apart from family is of no consequence to the system.”
Parents’ rights and fairness in the court process:
Many parents say that it’s easier to deal with bad outcomes when they felt their story was heard and the process was fair. For that to happen, we need our lawyers to take the time to explain our rights and choices in court.
* Explain the language used in court. What is the difference between a “hearing” and an “appearance”? Don’t assume we know the legal terms you use every day.
* If you don’t have time to explain the basics to every client, give parents written information about the court process. You can even give parents Rise’s legal rights columns that explain many aspects of the court process and parents’ rights.
Even though you represent us, we also want you to show that you’re concerned about protecting our children while they’re in foster care:
* Think about how scary and sad it feels to be a child who sees her parent only once a week, and how weird it is to visit your parent in a small room in an unfamiliar place. Make sure we begin our cases with as many visits as possible, and question the agency when the agency or foster parent cancels visits.
* Ask yourself, “If this was my child, would I feel comfortable with this visiting plan?”
* Also, take it seriously if parents have a concern about their child’s safety in foster care. Many parents feel their concerns about foster parents are simply dismissed.
Don’t encourage us to plead guilty just to expedite a case. Shame and anger, and a record of being a child abuser stay with us.
Standing up in court to admit that I neglected my children, I felt like everything I knew to be true and right was thrown out the window.
As the judge looked at me and said, “I strongly suggest you plead guilty,” I broke down and cried.
My lawyer put her head down and told me, “I will do what you want but she’s going to find you guilty. She’s already got her mind made up.”
I had two choices: Make a submission, allowing the court to find me guilty of neglect, or take my case to trial. My lawyer said that if I took the case to trial, it could drag on and on with my kids in care.
It seemed that if I wanted my children home quickly, I didn’t have much choice but to submit.
Making the submission was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.
My lawyer said, “My client’s ready.”
The judge said, “What is your plea?”
Tears rolled down my face as I made my submission. My legs were weak. I thought I was going to faint. I felt drained, like the system had broken me.
After I made my submission, the judge said something like: “Do you understand what you are saying? Is anyone forcing you to say these things?”
It felt so crazy like a rapist was forcing me to say that I’d wanted it.
In the end, it didn’t help my case.
My case dragged on for a year and a half before my children were returned home.
I don’t know what would have happened if I had taken my case to trial. Maybe my kids would have been in care even longer. But I wish I had never said I was guilty.
I wish my lawyer and I had had more time to discuss what my submission might mean to my children and me.
Having that guilty plea on my record feels horrible. The worst part is that people don’t get to see exactly what I did or didn’t do, just that I have a record for being “neglectful.”
We understand that sometimes our lawyers evaluate our case and decide that a settlement is the best choice. But it’s important that we have a full conversation with our lawyer about this decision.
* Explain why you’re recommending the settlement. Show us that it’s not just because you’re too busy to prepare for trial.
* Push for settlement offers to be given before we come to court, so we have time to review them together.
* If a judge or other lawyer makes an offer in the courtroom, ask for time to discuss it with us.
* Even when there are legal reasons to settle, we may have personal reasons why its not the right choice for us. We’re the ones who have to live with the consequences of that decision.
In court, parents often feel that their voices are not heard. We have to put all our trust in our lawyer and feel stripped of our whole identity.
* We understand that our lawyers may not want us to talk too much in court but we want the court to understand who we are as people.
* One thing we learned about in our reporting was an effort in Fresno, California to help court professionals understand parents. They told us: “One of the most important things we do is assist parents in writing a story of their life that they can read in court to show that they’re real people.” This is part of Fresno’s effort to address race and bias in its system.
* We would like attorneys to work with parents on how to safely include more of our life stories in court.
By talking more with parents, understanding our stories and what we want to say in court, you can find ways to include more details about us in your advocacy. Lawyers who do this have told us that they find it actually helps the judge see beyond harmful stereotypes. You may decide it’s OK for us to say these things directly in court, or you may come to an agreement with a parent that you’ll speak for them but stay true to their voice.
As one parent put it: “I trusted my lawyer because, when we went in the courtroom, she did not say whatever she wanted to say. She spoke for me. Every time I accomplished something, she brought it to the judge’s attention. It meant a lot to me that my lawyer stuck to the facts about my present life and congratulated me on my positive progress.”
We’ll end with Jeanette’s story. Please think about power and powerlessness – the powerlessness we so often feel, and the power you have as advocates.
When I was 19, and my son was 2, I lost my son to the child welfare system for three years because I hit him with a belt.
I was raised that if you get out of line, you get hit. Mom and grandma would hit us with a belt or throw slippers at us, the old-school Puerto Rican way.
Ever since he was one year old, Remi was an all-over-the-place, running around, never-sitting-still type of kid. I was always watching him and wondering, “What’s next? What now?”
One night while I was in the shower, Remi climbed out of his crib and went out to the sidewalk all by himself. When I saw that he was missing and found him playing outside, I was shocked and scared but my first reaction was to hit him.
The next day Remi was removed and I was arrested.
I was treated as a criminal. I wasn’t given a chance to explain myself. I wasn’t asked: What happened? I was just thrown behind bars. I felt like I was seen as a monster.
The first day I went to court was horrible for me. I walked in scared and confused. My lawyer came out screaming my name and said, “Let’s go.” The first remark I heard from the judge was him saying, “Do you think this is the ghetto?” because I had on sweatpants and a sweatshirt. I felt frozen. These things were happening to me, but I wasn’t even really there.
Later, my lawyer said if I wanted to be taken seriously in the court, I would need to dress more appropriately. Now I understand why he said that, but that remark coming from the person I was counting on to have my back, made me think, “This court hates me, and I’m never getting my son home, because I’m from the hood and I’m seen as a low income, poor family.” A simple gesture of kindness would have gone a long way. Instead, I felt like my lawyer didn’t understand who I was as an individual.
In court, it felt like I had no voice and I was just supposed to sit and have everyone tell me what to do in my life. I thought crying to my lawyer would help him listen to me, but it didn’t. I tried to tell my story, my history, who I was and how I was raised, but nothing.
I felt defeated and angry. My lawyer caught my wrath. I barely got a chance to speak with him so when I did see him I would flip out. I had so much to say but I was so angry and confused that I kept acting out with rage.
I was sent to anger management three times. But I really wasn’t an angry person, I was angry at the situation. It took a long time for me to learn that my anger was making people see me as someone who would solve any problem with violence, and that made them think they couldn’t trust me with my child.
When I finally realized that my anger was hurting my son, I was determined to change. But that was hard. Fighting my own battles within myself, not feeling like a good mother, didn’t help me at all.
So how did I do it? One thing I did was to empower myself.
I channeled my anger by asking questions about what I needed to do to get my son home. Sadly, I think even at the end of my case my lawyer didn’t understand who I was and why I was angry. I still wish he had talked to me, maybe then I would have understood the system better and got my son home sooner.
I found my voice in the years after my son came home. I joined a parent advocacy group where I felt that I could speak freely and not be judged. I also joined Rise and I used the writing process to reflect on my experiences. I’ve learned as an advocate that if you provide clear information and choices to parents, you can help them develop self-advocacy skills they’ll need all their lives.
I want to leave you with the reminder that the issues parents face are not going to be completely solved when children go home. Families hit crises. Parents are going to have to use their voices to solve family problems. The more you support parents using their voices during their case, and not just the winning outcome, the better equipped they’ll be to solve problems down the road.
Parents sometimes need coaching to speak up for themselves, because once child welfare gets involved, parents feel as they have no say in their lives. That was definitely my experience.
Now I use the power I have gained to empower other families that this is not the end. They can overcome their obstacles. I give parents a voice and I’m the voice many professionals hear from in New York City to give parents’ perspective to the people working with families.
You also have the power to affect how others in the system view parents and to empower your clients to tell their stories.