March 11, 2009

It is hard to write about court because I have such mixed feelings about it.  On one hand, I think it is very necessary to have this as part of the checks and balances of the system.  I also think it is fascinating and am quickly finding that I really enjoy interacting with my attorneys and see some potential for personal relationships (I hope!) forming.  And it can be a great source of accountability.  I rarely have concerns about the job that I am doing, but it is nice to have a powerful, neutral party telling some of my parents the same thing that I have been telling them – get your stuff together – now!

Yet there are some horrible things about court.  My biggest complaint is that it is a time sucker.  This week and last week, I have had 3 court hearings during the week.  If there is a morning hearing, I am there at 8 am and usually leave around noon.  There is 4 hours that is not effectively used.  A huge frustration and typical cause of this is that defense attorneys do no contact their clients until we are at court, so I get to hang around as they finally talk to their clients.  Ugh.  And then, the courts are just congested and I typically just spend tons of time just sitting and waiting for my hearing.

Another frustration is the variability of the bench.  Rulings vary dramatically depending on who the hearing is in front of.  That doesn’t seem right.  And then, to really get me hot, sometimes the person on the bench has no clue about social work and services, but still orders ridiculous things to happen that are often not possible, and worse, not appropriate to the situation.  It is frustrating to be ordered to do something in my field by someone who is not experienced or trained in it.  It would be nice to be treated with some respect that would acknowledge that I may have more insight into a situation because it is my area of expertise – just like I would not tell a lawyer what would be the most appropriate legal action to take, because I am not a lawyer.  This seems to be more of a social issue, where society does not value the field of social work and somehow thinks that lay folks know as much or more than the professionals.  This is insulting.

Finally, most of the defense attorneys, I recognize are doing their job for similar reasons that I am: wanting to represent and protect the vulnerable.  Therefore, they are level-headed, respectful, and fair.  While I may not agree with them all of the time, I believe they are doing what they are because they have a basic foundation for social justice.  But there are some for which this is not the case.  They are bullies and they are greedy.  I am currently working with one of the few private attorneys (who has an awful reputation for bankrupting her clients – and I think it will happen in this case too) and I don’t know if I have met a more disrespectful person in my life.  I understand that attorneys need to present a strong case for their clients, but writing condescending emails and purposefully avoiding eye contact is unnecessary.  (BTW, being disrespectful to me is one of the quickest ways to getting on my sh*t list and my standards of “respect” are not necessarily that high).  I wonder if she knows what her reputation is and if and how that feeds into her demeanor.

Oh, and one final thing about court.  I have to dress up for court – nicer than if I was just in the office or doing home visits, and I am starting to run out of outfits.  I know this should indicate that I can go shopping, but I hate going shopping.  I just wish that I didn’t have that worry about what to wear so frequently!


My First Trial

February 1, 2009

I knew this was going to happen, but I was still dreading it.  One of my cases going to trial.  Essentially cases go to trial when we (the Dept. and the parents) cannot come to an agreement on a legal proceeding, usually for dependency or termination of parental rights.  In this case, the parents of my shaken baby are not agreeing to dependency on their newest child that we removed at birth.

The Dept. (and I) are of the opinion that these parents seriously injured a child, have not admitted to it or the gravity of her injuries, and have not participated in the services they agreed to to address their “parental deficiencies”.  So we are going to trial.  This is a pretty nerve-wracking experience.  My lawyer has been prepping everything for the trial and calling the past social workers, who of course come to me and ask what is going on.  They are all going to be called as witnesses, as will I.  So I have been going over all of my case records and remembering what I did on the case over time (which is really hard!) and trying to mentally prepare myself to be cross-examined.  It is hard not to have pictures of Law & Order or A Few Good Men go through your head and not wonder how you will do or if they will break you.  I hope not!

And scheduling is a huge pain, because I have to be at the trial the entire time, which means I cannot do anything on my other cases, so I am trying to get colleagues to cover my other hearings and trying to make sure that I have nothing majorly pressing on my other cases.

So I was originally told that trial was to start on Monday, 1/26, but wouldn’t know for sure until after the case scheduling conference that happened the Thursday afternoon before.  I then learned that it would happen downtown in a different courthouse and start on Tuesday.  So I am all prepped for Tuesday until one of the parent’s attorneys asks for a one-day continuance due to illness, which everyone agrees to (although he still works and is in hearings for other cases – whatever).  So I dry clean my one suit and haul the case files on a bus and go downtown Wed. morning.  Most of us are ready but the parents are 30 minutes late, which is typical of them.  Unfortunately, so is one of our translators, and we cannot proceed without her.  I am in charge of scheduling translators (yep, along with everything else) and I would have been worried about not doing something correctly, if it wasn’t that I spoke to her personally on Monday to inform her about Tuesday’s continuance.  I call, no answer.  We all wait and wait and wait.  I am pissed because this makes me look bad.  She finally arrives 2 hours late! because she had double-booked.  Fortunately, the judge lays into her a bit, so I do not have to.  And we start trial.

Except we don’t.  The parents’ attorneys ask for a continuance because we just received a psych report on the dad and they want more time to review it.  The lawyers (all three!) have the most long-winded arguments I have ever heard.  Why isn’t there a time limit on them?  Seriously, they need to get more concise!

The judge grants their motion and we are delayed for about a month (although with some meetings in between).  And it was probably the right decision, as they probably do need time to review the report.  And it was nice for me to go back to the office and be able to work on stuff without anything scheduled.  And maybe this will increase our chances of having the case settle, which would just be so much easier.  But what a stressful process!

Big Decisions

August 21, 2008

Fortunately for me, it is now policy that big decisions (like returning a kid home) are the shared responsibility of many different people.  One person is not supposed to shoulder the burden.  I have been facing a big decision this week.  One of my kids, who is just over a year old, has a court hearing tomorrow morning.  His mother, who is currently in inpatient substance abuse treatment for an addiction to heroin, has been looking to agree to dependency and hoping that she can go to Family Treatment Court, which is a special program exclusively for parents for whom substance abuse is the primary concern where the the atmosphere is more intimate, but there there is more accountability.  It is a great program.  The father, who apparently does not have a substance abuse problem, is not wanting to agree to dependency.  So we had to decide if we wanted to fight for dependency and take it to a trial.

So I did what all good (and new) social workers do – I staffed it with my supervisor.  My supervisor was concerned (as was I) that dad was unaware that his girlfriend had relapsed and was actively using heroin.  She was also concerned about criminal activity that he had been linked to (although not charged).  So we are going forward.  Today, I spent trying to get my attorney all the evidence and information he needed in order to get a strong case built to hopefully show dad’s attorney that we have a decent case and will agree to settling.

Tomorrow, I have been warned, the defense attorneys may try to trick me and get me to say something that they can use against me.  I am not thrilled about this prospect.  Plus, this feels like a very strange way for me to be working as a social worker.  I want to be helpful and work with my clients, yet today I had to spend lots of time attempting to build a case against them.  And I know that my primary client is the kid, but I do feel like the parents are too.  But I do think that there is still risk with this dad in regards to this kid’s safety.  He appears to minimize problems quite a bit and I am concerned that he had no idea that his girlfriend was actively using heroin.

And it was interesting gathering the information.  I learned today that we have U.S. Postal Inspectors that investigate mail fraud, postal burglaries, identity theft, and related things.  I had no idea.  The inspector was very nice and helpful and so interesting to get a totally different perspective on clients.  I do think that I want to do some investigative CPS work in the future.

So I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.  A colleague suggested to do very little talking, let the lawyers hash it all out, and try to just listen to people.  We’ll see how that goes.  I just hope that I can keep my composure and not screw things up.

Badgered by Lawyers

August 2, 2008

Yesterday I was at court all morning where it was very busy.  I personally had three hearings for my cases.  They were more “check-in” hearings where nothing big happened, we just touched base with all of the players.

A coworker also had to go in for an emergency hearing after she had to pull kids from their mother’s home after she was being pretty neglectful.  So they had to have a hearing to get permission to place the kids somewhere.  On Thursday night, they had a 3 hour meeting about it (which I sat in) and then they were at court until mid-afternoon.  So it was stressful and contentious and not very fun for anyone.  Well, the end result was the judge gave the social worker the authority to place the kids in foster care, with suitable adults (family friends), and to return home to the mother when it is appropriate.  After the hearing, apparently the mother’s attorney accosted the social worker saying that she should just return the kids to the mom and not go through trying to figure out another place for the kids to go.  Apparently they were pretty aggressive and the social worker got a bit overwhelmed and began crying.

So I was thinking to myself, how would I react and what would I say.  This is hard.  I am not someone who is very good or experienced with confrontation.  Especially when compared to lawyers who are trained and seem to thrive on it.  While supervising these kids in the office until 8 pm on Friday I was thinking about this and finally came to an answer as I was driving home late for the second night in a row, exhausted.

The reason that my colleague wouldn’t do it and why I wouldn’t is because is it my ass on the line.  If something happens, the blame sits on the social worker’s shoulders.  The attorney doesn’t bare responsibility – and would probably shirk it as soon as possible.  We have to make harsh decisions sometimes and trust our guts because it is our responsibility to make those determinations.  Is this safe or not for kids?  Unfortunately, this puts us in situations where we are bullied, disliked, and even threatened.

So I need to embrace and cement this mentality more and more.  Which is tough.  I feel like in social work school we are taught to trust clients and take their word as true.  And while there is an element of that in child welfare, we are also analyzing situations.  And this pisses people off.  I am just not looking forward to the time where a lawyer attempts to bully me.

10:00 pm

July 17, 2008

Last night I worked until 10:00 pm because I had 2 court reports due. And the scary thing was I was not the last one to leave the office. There were two other social workers still at the office (one from my unit) who did not look like they were leaving as I headed out the door. I wasn’t thrilled about staying for so long, but I didn’t feel like I had much choice about it – these reports were due at 11 am this morning to the court, and I had to be at Academy during the day. Which I think is the main culprit – I have to be at Academy during the day and I can’t work on the stuff that is still needed to be done. This is why I am not supposed to have cases, but at the same time I don’t mind doing this in an attempt at lightening my colleagues’ loads.

Will I work until 10 again? Probably. I am certainly not the first and won’t be the last. Yet, it seems that social workers’ commitments to their job (this being just one example), continues to go unnoticed. But I am not here for the glory, right? I just might get a little offended when I get accused of being lazy or neglectful…

Cases! Court! Yikes!

June 25, 2008

So because our unit keeps on getting new cases transferring to us and because my colleagues in my unit are getting closer to their respective breaking points, my supervisor decided that it would be a good idea to give me and the other new person in our unit some cases. She got one with 3 kids and I got 2 cases with one kid each.

Both of my cases are with single moms who are about 20 years old and both have extensive maltreatment experiences themselves. For both, this is their first kid and for both they went through a variety of other routes before getting to me – voluntary services, etc. One is a physical abuse case (first boyfriend beat the 2 year old, and then a month or 2 later, mom did too). The other is a neglect case – kid was found watching tv while mom slept and the tub running with water flooded the apartment and caused significant damage to the downstairs apartment.

Getting cases is a good thing. Mostly. I was kinda enjoying not having a ton of responsibility, kinda, and I think very quickly I am going to miss not having multiple major things to be responsible for. And I don’t know if I am ready to go to court tomorrow. It is one thing to go and observe and figure out what is going on; it is an entirely different thing to have to sit at the table and possibly have to answer questions (which I probably don’t know that answer to!). Fortunately, court should be pretty uneventful tomorrow – sign here, meet the mom (spoke to her on the phone, but haven’t met her yet), and check in with the AG (attorney general – essentially my lawyer, representing the Dept).

So I am a caseworker. I am the go-to. Oh, and I forgot. So I was assigned these cases on Tuesday, mid-day, and in the later afternoon I am informed that there was a new referral for child abuse on one of the cases. So I went out with the investigator the next day to check on the kid (she had already gone out Tuesday while I was doing a home visit) and neither of us were concerned about the marks on the child. I was more concerned about the friend/day care provider who made the report. I wonder what is going on with her because it seems like there might have been other motivation for the report. Or not. I guess that is something I am going to have to look into a little more in the future.

Tomorrow: Potential Conflict in Court

June 11, 2008

So I am going to court tomorrow for a hearing for a case that I have been supervising the visits for at Mom’s treatment facility. I (and others) have had some concerns about this Mom; mostly that she seems to struggle parenting more than one child at a time (I supervise visits with a 6 year old and 1 year old). Most frequently, she is focusing all of her attention on the 1 year old and does not engage much with the 6 year old (although the last 2 visits have been better). This concern is further exacerbated by the fact that Mom is 8.5 months pregnant. Will she ignore the 1 year old as well once there is a new baby in the picture?

So there is potential for concerns, particularly this one, to come up tomorrow at court, which I am planning on attending. Now, I will not be the one saying any of this in court, but I could see this being brought up, Mom not being pleased at all, and then her confronting me about the concern. Then what? Do I defend my position? This does not seem to be a good idea: I have no desire to argue something that has no potential of resolution. But Mom does have a right to voice her opinion. So I guess I will try to acknowledge her disagreement, but stand firm that it is a concern that I have in some of the behaviors I have seen. And then try to leave it at that. We’ll see how that goes. And my guess is this will also have an effect on future visits, which will also be interesting.

I just don’t like conflict – I am the product of two very skilled conflict avoiders. But I know that I am now smak-dab in the middle of conflict all the time, so I guess this is a good time to get into it. Sigh.