California Lawyer


March 2014

Spare the Child
"The Children Left Behind" by Sasha Abramsky [December] is a wake-up call to the State Bar, which has failed to provide children in dependency court with the protection needed when their counsel commits errors or malpractice. Large caseloads are not an excuse when other attorneys make mistakes, and errors are not acceptable in dependency court either. The State Bar requires attorneys who are sanctioned $1,000 or more to self-report for a mandatory review. As there appear to be no such sanctions in dependency court, the State Bar should implement a program so that when a child in foster care who is represented by counsel dies or is injured, there is a mandatory self-report by the attorney and a review by the State Bar.

In dependency proceedings, a minor's counsel serves as the child's guardian ad litem. (See Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code ยง 326.5; In re Cole C., 174 Cal. App. 4th 900, 910 (2009).) Therefore the most vulnerable children in the court system are the least protected, as their attorneys act with autonomy. Pity the person who tries to question the attorney's work - since those attorneys' routine answer is that they answer only to their client, the child. With the attorney being the guardian, there is no one left to complain to the State Bar when the attorney doesn't live up to obligations and the child is hurt. Self-reporting when something goes wrong is one way to ensure oversight without having to incur additional costs on an overburdened system.
Sandra Carter, Long Beach

Having practiced in five counties, my thoughts on "The Children Left Behind" are generalized, not county specific. First of all, although state law currently forbids it, there seems to be no practical, ethical, or equal-protection reason why delinquency court judges should not be allowed to appoint CASA [Court Appointed Special Advocates] volunteers, whose reports are often of great value.

Second, history shows us that secret government proceedings generally lead to abuses. Those who maintain that secrecy aids juvenile proceedings usually do not bother to actually detail the reasoning. Likewise, those secrecy advocates fail to acknowledge that whatever benefits exist need to be balanced against the abuse and arrogance that is found in every Child Protective Services report throughout the state. The often-arbitrary way CPS denies reunification, giving the most trivial of reasons, approaches child-stealing. Trial courts are willing to reverse only a small percentage of CPS recommendations - no matter how outrageous. Appellate courts reverse an even smaller percentage. The family destruction rolls on. Most legal reform comes from public outrage over bad events. But without open courts, there can be no public outrage and subsequent reform.

The increased communication between parents and service providers that occurs in dependency drug courts has improved reunification rates. If similar processes were implemented in dependency courts, it would aid in reasonable-services litigation and uncover roadblocks to reunification early on. Social workers could prepare private case plans for parents who are denied reunification so that they might reenter reunification later.

Unfortunately, there is no forum for public discussion of juvenile courts. Hopefully, your article will start an irregular series on these secret courts.
William B. Briggs, Alturas

Mental Health Help
I am both a clinical psychologist and an attorney, and I noticed in the MCLE article "Addressing Substance Abuse" [December] that licensed clinical psychologists were conspicuously absent from the list of available resources. They are trained to help people cope with and heal from many different types of emotional distress. A clinical psychologist can assess what other mental health issues and situational stressors are involved and what treatment interventions are indicated, coordinate care with medical providers, and provide ongoing confidential support for as long as the person needs it. Early consultation with a trained mental health professional can help a person come to terms with his or her substance abuse as a treatable problem, strengthen motivation for recovery, and take meaningful steps toward healing before the type of career-jeopardizing impairment described in the article occurs.

Attorneys suffer from high rates of depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse, often more than one of these in a single individual. Typically, psychiatric distress began in law school and was never treated. Support groups play an important role in recovery from substance abuse; however, for many, and especially those with a co-occurring psychiatric disorder, this approach by itself will be utterly inadequate. Addiction is a treatable bio-psycho-social phenomenon, and it warrants comprehensive professional assistance. Failure to include psychotherapy as an available resource reinforces the stigma surrounding treatment of psychological conditions.
Ilene Diamond, San Francisco

We welcome your comments!


E-mail: (will not be published)

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.

Enter the characters on the left: