Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Family Law Attorney Panel Discussion

This semester through my participation in the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children, and the Courts Student Fellows Program, I was able to meet a panel of successful and enthusiastic Maryland family law attorneys. The panel of attorneys was able to provide insight into their experiences in a career field where their work often does not receive the recognition and praise that it deserves. The attorneys provided unique perspectives into their journeys to the practice of family law and useful words of wisdom. Some always knew that they wanted to practice family law, while others began practicing in other areas of law until family law chose them. Each panel member added valuable perspectives to the discussion, and it was a breath of fresh air and reassurance for me as a second-year law student with a passion to help others through child advocacy and family law.
From the panel discussion, I also gained a better understanding of how family law attorneys dedicate their careers to advocate for broken families and how they often meet their clients at the lowest points in their lives. Seemingly for some clients, the attorneys are a lighthouse in a hopeless sea of never-ending issues, including domestic violence, poverty, child custody, and divorce. The attorneys transform their clients’ lives and provide them with the peace of mind that they will work for them to resolve their issues. I listened as the panel described how they work long hours but expressed just how rewarding it is to impact the life of someone else in a way that is life-changing, whether it is helping a distraught woman get out of an abusive marriage or assist a deserving parent to gain custody of their children during a nasty divorce. I walked away from the panel feeling empowered and enthusiastic about the career path that I chose and with a better understanding of the importance of the work of family law attorneys.
Whenever I express my interest in becoming a family law attorney to others, the usual response I receive is “Why? You will not make any money.” Through this panel discussion and my experiences in child advocacy and family law thus far, I am persuaded that there is no way to put a price on the ability to make a substantial difference in the lives of children and families in crisis.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Dealing with Feelings of Inadequacy in the Truancy Court Program

Each week, law students involved in the University of Baltimore School of Law Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts Truancy Court Program (TCP) discuss at the weekly team meeting each of our TCP student’s cases and the deeper issues that students may be experiencing that result in truancy.  This past week one of my fellow law school classmates bravely expressed that he feels inadequate to help the TCP students.  We see these students once a week for an hour, and we talk about their goals, problems, and possible solutions, but is it helping?  My classmate’s comment struck me because it’s a feeling I have from time to time.  Some of the TCP students have issues that are hard to find solutions to, including illnesses in the family, poverty, and overcrowded houses.  In these situations, what can we as law students do?  One of my TCP student’s mothers was diagnosed with cancer, which required the student to miss school a few times last year.   Situations like that are problematic because there is no quick and easy solution.  Even with the “simpler” issues, such as being disruptive in class or poor grades, we direct the TCP students to coach classes and encourage them to get help.  Nonetheless, there is always the lingering feeling that the work we do for the TCP students is not helping them.

I find myself not only wanting the TCP students to end their truant behavior, but I also want them to become scholars and leaders in their community--especially with the group of TCP students I have at Reginald F. Lewis High School.  I see so much potential in these students and would love to see them achieve their short-term and long-term goals.  Realistically, however, I understand that the students face so many hurdles, some of which are beyond the reach of my ability to assist.   It’s a good feeling when we see the TCP students absorbing what we say in our one-on-one meetings at the TCP sessions, but I struggle with the thought, what happens when we leave?

In response to my classmate’s comment in our meeting, one of the TCP staff members simply stated, “We help the students more than we know.”  It is so easy to feel as though you are not doing enough because some of the tougher problems are not solved immediately.  I didn’t take time to consider, however, that my presence is helpful.  For some of these students, the TCP provides the support and attentiveness they do not receive anywhere else.  That statement put things in perspective for me.  Nothing great is achieved overnight, and you never know how your actions may be positively affecting another person.  Naturally, I still want the TCP students to end their truancy and achieve their goals, but I understand that things take time and that my help is not in vain.  I look forward to continuing my work with the TCP because it is a huge step in the right direction for the students involved.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Story of George Trevino: A Lesson that the Holistic Approach Employed by Family Courts Requires a Concerted Effort by All


           This semester I have graciously served as a Student Fellow for the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center For Children, Families, and the Courts. Throughout my involvement with this program, I have had the pleasure of interacting with enthusiastic Baltimore City students, classmates that share a similar passion for family and the law, and multiple professors and professionals that challenge each of us to think independently and reach reasonable, well-grounded solutions. Though my experiences with this program have been exceptional, I find that the common perception regarding family law, for the most part, holds true: individuals that practice this area of law must be inherently stoic, for the challenges presented are mentally taxing. Few things, if any, have moved me like the story of George Trevino.[1]

George Trevino was presumably born to a family less fortunate, living in a van with his mother and two siblings until age six. At this time, George entered the child welfare system as a neglected child, resulting in separation from each family member. Despite the fact that George bounced from home to home, enduring years of foster care drift, he eventually thrived when given the chance to remain in a placement for one full year. In what became an axiomatic failure by the welfare system, the State removed George from this stable environment and assumed that his best interests were suited elsewhere. He was subsequently placed with his uncle and aunt, one a drug dealer, the other a substance abuser. George regressed and exhibited traits he never had before. His plummeting grades and truant behavior culminated in street gang involvement and eventually criminal behavior. As a result, his welfare case was terminated, and he was moved to the delinquency court system.  

Not only does the story of George Trevino represent a failure by the welfare system, but it is also a failure by legal personnel involved in the process, as well. His Juvenile Court Judge was never apprised of the fact that he had been raised in foster care, and apparently no one, not even his lawyer, the social worker, or the case manager, acknowledged the fact that when George was provided with a positive environment, he thrived. Because his situation was handled in such a horrid manner, George Trevino was deprived the privilege of life. In fact, he expressed this helpless feeling in a poem he wrote while incarcerated, with a passage that read, “there’s no way out, my screams have no voice no matter how loud I shout.” George Trevino could have been you or I. The sad truth is that there are presumably hundreds of George Trevinos, each falling victim to challenging life circumstances. And yet, as gut wrenching as his story is, it can be used as a learning tool to foster the holistic approach to family law cases that should be employed by judges, lawyers, social workers, and other figures in the family court system.  

Throughout the course of this semester, we have explored concepts that include therapeutic jurisprudence and preventive law, among others. Both theories share a relationship essential to the holistic approach. The concept of preventive law ensures that client contact with the court system, if at all, is minimal. The concept of therapeutic jurisprudence expresses the belief that the law ought to affect individuals in a beneficial manner. Essentially, preventive law can be thought of as the task, while therapeutic jurisprudence is the guiding hand. Yet, despite the promulgation of such theories, family related matters appear before the court system at alarming rates. Data suggest that these matters comprise more than half of the complaints filed in state trial courts. And although this figure is astronomically high, indicating that these cases need proper attention, family disputes are still perceived as the “stepchildren” of the justice system. In order to ensure that the story of George Trevino becomes less common, this perception must change.

Key figures have taken important steps to minimize this perception through the establishment and implementation of the unified family court system. These courts feature several crucial qualities that include, but are not limited to, a user-friendly atmosphere, a vast array of services, and specialized case management. The mere existence of these court systems, standing alone, however, does not guarantee that they will be effective. Each participant and component within this system, ranging from judges to various medical personnel, must challenge each other and strive for great results. We live in a society premised on the concept of family, and with every positive intervention, a life could be improved. It is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that the story of George Trevino could have been different had his case been handled in a unified family court system rather than the fragmented court system he endured. Had key issues been raised to the judge or had the individuals assigned to George’s case displayed a higher degree of care, his outcome could have, and likely would have, been different. The case of George Trevino suggests that in order for the unified family court system to avoid similar outcomes and rid itself of its “stepchild” stigma, all personnel must exercise their best judgment through a thoughtful, concerted effort, leaving no detail, no matter how slim, unnoticed.    

[1] Catherine J. Ross, The Failure of Fragmentation: The Promise of a System of Unified Family Courts, 52 Family Law Quarterly 3 (1998).