by Gina Sestak
The toughest job I've ever held, emotionally, was representing indigent parents in Juvenile Court dependency proceedings.
"Dependent" children are those who are abused, neglected, or otherwise without parental care or control. So you probably think their parents are scuzzball slime, right? WRONG.
Most of my clients were poor people caught in a system that employed just-out-of-college middle class kids to go out into homes and determine whether children were at risk. Turn-over in their job was tremendous. Most lasted no more than 6 months or, at most, a year. I handled cases in which these social workers deemed children to be at risk and had them removed from their homes by the police because:
* there was a cat seen sleeping on a child's bed
* the children (ages 11, 14, and 15) were home alone (at 3:00 in the afternoon while their parents were grocery shopping)
* the parents couldn't explain how a child had been injured (the injury occurred sometime during a two day period during which the child had been in the care of relatives on both sides of the family as well as with the parents)
* the child's burn wasn't properly treated for 5 days (but my client had taken her daughter to the emergency room right after the accidental burn happened; it was the hospital who sent her home with ointment instead of properly assessing the extent of the injury)
* the child has bruising on his lower back (this was "Mongolian spots," a dark pigmented area commonly seen on kids with East Asian ancestry)
* they were living in a shelter (their home had burned down)
These caseworkers also testified that parents were unfit because "the mother took that child on a city bus" and "although the children have proper beds, their mother is sleeping on a mattress on the floor" (my client's explanation: she thought it was more important to spend limited funds on the kids' needs rather than her own). When one mother did some wildcrafting (this was when "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" was popular), the caseworker accused her of making the children eat weeds.
All this was going on while real abuse and life threatening situations were being ignored. One caseworker failed to take action when, during a home visit, she noticed that a previously alert baby had become lethargic. "I just figured he was retarded or something," she testified, explaining why she left him there to die of a brain injury. And, in a case that actually made the newspapers (most Juvenile Court proceedings are kept confidential), three mentally challenged girls were sexually abused by their father and his friends for years, despite repeated reporting of suspicions by their school. Reported sexual abuse of a toddler was discounted when the doctor who was supposed to perform an exam refused because the child screamed and seemed terrified when he tried to examine her. So, without evidence, she was sent back to the abusive home.
Once the kids were in foster care, parents were limited to one one-hour visit per month, in the presence of a caseworker. One caseworker noted that my client seemed "unable to control" her 5 young children during these visits - the kids, who only saw each other during these visits, tended to get a little rowdy. Another faulted how my client interacted with her child - my client, who had been raised Amish, explained that she had not been raised to make a public show of emotion. A caseworker tried to stop visitation with my client (the father) because the child would be out of control when he went back to the foster home -- her example: the little boy didn't want to stop playing with a truck his father had given him. Another caseworker made my clients come to visits for more than six months "to prove they would show up," but never brought the children to the visits. Another testified that my client had failed to keep a visitation appointment without calling to cancel as if that were proof of irresponsibility, even though my client had provided her with a newspaper article showing that she (the client/mother) had been in an automobile accident and was in a coma on the day of the scheduled visitation.
I could go on for pages, but I'll stop here.
The job was a project funded by Allegheny County through the Allegheny County Bar Association. I and another attorney - Katherine B. Emery, who is now a Judge in Washington County -- handled all of the cases ourselves. It was described as "part-time," although hearings started at 8:30 a.m. every day and sometimes continued into the evening. We were expected to provide our own offices, etc. out of a small stipend that was often paid months late. Three judges heard cases, and Kathy and I were constantly running from one courtroom to another. The few minutes out of court were spent in a waiting area, interviewing our clients and trying to prepare cases on the fly. Research, appeals, etc. had to be done on the weekends.
After about two years, I walked out of a court room and punched out a window in the attorney waiting area. I realized that it was only matter of time before I hit a social worker or a judge.
The project is still in existence, but now it has funding, offices and full time employees.
And me? I'm still burnt out.