Tina Amberboy, Tiffany Roper, and Milbrey E. Raney 2015-03-25 23:34:18
Improving legal advocacy in CPS cases through affordable training. Child protection law is essential to our society and our sense of justice. While Texas statutes provide the right to court-appointed representation for children and indigent parents involved in child protection suits brought by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, these laws do not guarantee adequate representation. The Supreme Court of Texas Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families, guided by Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and chaired by Justice Eva Guzman, considers the improvement of legal representation for children, parents, and the child welfare agency to be a pressing need because good lawyering can positively affect how families experience the judicial and foster care systems. Child protection cases often subject children not only to the trauma of being removed from their homes but also to a court process that offers overworked and underpaid advocates to direct their course. It is critical for these families and our communities that welltrained attorneys take on these challenging cases. —Hon. Dean Rucker presiding judge of the 7th Administrative Judicial Region and senior judge of the 318th Family District Court in Midland April, designated as National Child Abuse Prevention Month, offers an opportunity to consider the issues facing children and families on the child protection dockets in Texas courts and how well Texas attorneys serve this extremely vulnerable population. In fiscal year 2014, 66,572 Texas children were found by DFPS to be victims of abuse or neglect.1 Of those children, DFPS removed 17,378 from their homes.2 All of the children removed, along with their parents, were entitled to court-appointed representation.3 When a family is involved in a child protection proceeding, quality legal counsel is absolutely essential to ensure that the court strikes the appropriate balance between the rights and duties of all involved parties. A well-trained state’s attorney can be instrumental in charting a legal course to help ensure a safe, speedy, and permanent placement for a child. A qualified and experienced parent’s attorney can provide the client with information, guidance, and assistance to help provide or identify a safe and suitable home for the children, as well as conduct an independent investigation of the facts and present evidence to test the reliability of the state’s allegations. For children and youth in the state’s care, a zealous and educated attorney ad litem can mean the difference between languishing in foster care for years and quickly finding a safe, permanent home. While there are many qualified and dedicated attorneys who provide legal representation to children in foster care, a 2010 study by Texas Appleseed noted that some attorneys who represent children fail to understand or fulfill their statutorily mandated duties.4 Many former foster youth consistently stated that they either did not know they had an attorney to represent them throughout their cases or, if they did know, their attorney never met with them, elicited their wishes or desires regarding case outcomes, or inquired into their health and well-being while in care.5 Attorneys often lack the training required to guide clients through a complex system that is laden with statutory law, administrative policies, and regulations— all while trying to appreciate the emotional turmoil experienced by their clients. Just a few years ago, attorney training was restricted to that developed by local bar associations and organizations. Historically, the training delivered to larger audiences statewide was limited, except for the one-day Child Abuse and Neglect Workshop offered as part of the State Bar’s annual Advanced Family Law Course, which was often out of reach financially for solo practitioners and local prosecutors handling Child Protective Services cases. Michele Surratt, special litigation attorney for DFPS in Lubbock, states that when she began practicing in this area 10 years ago, “you had to throw yourself into the courtroom and learn by doing. It was trial by fire, but because children’s lives could be in danger and parents’ constitutional rights were in play, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Without proper training in the law, trial skills, and CPS case procedures, attorneys have a hard time doing their job well.” Belinda Roberts, a courtappointed attorney for parents and children in Austin, agrees: “Being a solo attorney is very isolating, and it can be a challenge to learn how to improve your skill set when you’re on your own.” In response to an unmet need for widely available high-quality training on child protection law, procedure, and practice, the Children’s Commission and the Texas- BarCLE division of the State Bar of Texas have created more attorney training opportunities in the past few years. In 2013, an online library of CPS-related webinars was developed to offer low-cost CLEs on various topics relevant to child, parent, and state’s attorneys. A complete listing of current learning opportunities can be found at texasbarcle.com/CLE/OCSearch2.asp. According to Judge Rucker, “The Children’s Commission’s partnership with the State Bar provides high-quality training that is readily available and financially viable to attorneys across the state. Additionally, the Children’s Commission provides scholarships for many Texas attorneys to attend state and national conferences, thereby making live CLE presentations affordable.” To be sure, gaining a basic comprehension of the issues in a child protection case can be difficult, but it is even more challenging to amass trial skills in this practice area. In 2010, under the leadership of Justice Michael C. Massengale of the 1st Court of Appeals in Houston, the Children’s Commission began developing a hands-on trial skills training program designed to assist all attorneys working on the CPS dockets across the state. Since October 2013, the Children’s Commission has offered its Trial Skills Training course to parent, child, and state’s attorneys twice yearly. This three-day intensive training is based on a fictional Texas CPS case and teaches litigation skills by lecturing, demonstrating, strategizing, and practicing in all areas of trial preparation. Many highly respected attorneys and judges act as volunteer faculty members, and live witnesses are included for a unique, robust, and effective course. Feedback has been very positive. According to retired District Judge Jean Boyd of Fort Worth, “All of the attorneys and prosecutors from my jurisdiction who participated in the commission’s Trial Skills Training have said it is the best training they have ever received. They feel they are much better advocates as a result and they have clearly demonstrated this to be true in the courtroom.” Attorneys can also pursue appointments in child protection cases or in volunteer opportunities with their local county’s child welfare board or as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA). Pro bono opportunities may exist at the local level for representing parents in limitedduty appointments or providing critical advocacy for older youth in long-term foster care. No matter which path you take as an attorney to help a child or family on the CPS docket, your community will be better for it. Dedicated and qualified attorneys, along with guardians ad litem or CASA volunteers, can help navigate the legal process and provide important, additional levels of oversight to help ensure safety and well-being in foster care. Perhaps Judge Boyd says it best: “The complexity of CPS cases and the gravity of the decisions that have to be made affecting the lives of children and families merit the best representation possible.” Notes 1. Tex. Dep’t of Family and Protective Servs., 2014 Combined Annual Report and Data Book (2014), available at http://www.dfps.state.tx.us/About_DFPS/Data_Books_ and_Annual_Reports/2014/default.asp. 2. Id. http://www.dfps.state.tx.us/About_DFPS/Reports_and_Data/Data_and_Stats/child_protective_services/cps-chart_Number_of_Children_Removed.asp. 3. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. §§107.012 and 107.013. 4. Texas Appleseed, Improving the Lives of Children in Long-Term Foster Care: The Role of Texas’ Courts & Legal System (2010) at 84, available at http://texaschildrens commission.gov/media/330/appleseedstudy.pdf. 5. Id. TINA AMBERBOY joined the Supreme Court of Texas as the executive director of the Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families in May 2007. She is also an adjunct professor at Baylor Law School, where she teaches a family rights and litigation class. Previously she worked as an attorney representing children and parents in the child welfare system. Amberboy earned a Juris Doctor from Baylor Law School in 1996 and a Bachelor of Arts in government from the University of Texas at Austin in 1993. TIFFANY ROPER came to the Supreme Court from the Center for Public Policy Priorities, where she was a child welfare policy analyst. She represented the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services in child abuse and neglect litigation as a prosecutor and represented children in the Texas foster care system as a supervising attorney in the Children's Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. MILBREY E. RANEY joined the Supreme Court of Texas as a staff attorney for the Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families in April 2012. Previously she worked as an attorney representing children and parents in the child welfare system. She earned a Juris Doctor from the University of Texas School of Law in 1995 and a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Davidson College in 1989.
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