Thursday, November 20, 2014

Truancy and “Absentee” Parents: An Anecdotal Comparison from the Parenting Trenches


            During a recent Truancy Court Program (“TCP”) team meeting, some law students expressed frustration about the lack of parental involvement in the Truancy Court Programs. Ideally parents should be at the table to discuss truancy with the TCP team and their child each week. After working with students and hearing their stories, however, I understand why many parents cannot attend.

            It is often said that truancy is just the “tip of the iceberg.” As such, the TCP model provides resources that are intended to address the underlying issues that result in truancy. Focusing on the result while ignoring the source is often ineffective. In many cases parental input would help the TCP team name and resolve the causes of a particular student’s truant behavior. Parents can provide clarity and detail that their young children simply cannot, and lack of parental input can be extremely frustrating for those of us trying to identify and address the root of truancy. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that these parents want the best for their children, even though they may not be in a place to provide the best.

            I struggle with “absenteeism” in my personal life as well. I am a single mom of three, and I am a full time law student. I often spend 15 hours or more at school each day. During finals I have even less time to check  my children’s homework, sign tests, or answer emails from teachers. Despite fitting the highly organized, typical law student “Type A” personality almost perfectly, my schedule is almost always out of synch with my children’s schedule. I miss music recitals and chaperoning school trips. Thanksgiving, which was once my favorite family holiday, is so consumed with preparation for my final exams, that I usually just pick up carryout. My ex-husband enjoys the large family meal with our children with the hope that Thanksgiving can be in my home again after I graduate.

            I have a large network of support to help my family during law school, and I still struggle to find equilibrium between my education and my children’s education. Even with a bevy of resources at my disposal, it can be extremely difficult to make sure that the individuals with whom my children interact at school know that they have an invested parent rooting for them at home. As an “absentee” parent myself, I empathize with parents who also struggle with this balance. This is especially true when I discover that they are faced with a lack of resources, including homelessness, unaddressed substance abuse, lack of reliable transportation, households run by single parents, and limited employment and childcare options.

            I want my children to succeed and do well regardless of whether I miss their school functions, and I absolutely believe that this is true for TCP parents, as well. It is extremely frustrating when there is a lack of parental involvement.  The most productive approach, however, is to start with the premise that all parents want the best for their children; some may lack the supports that are necessary to provide the best. As long as the TCP remains committed to building strengths for parents and students alike, regardless of whether parental participation reaches ideal levels, the TCP will continue to effectively combat truancy by addressing the issues beneath the tip of the iceberg.

Monday, November 17, 2014

In Forma Pauperis

On one fateful day in Florida a man named Clarence Earl Gideon broke into a poolroom with the intent to commit a misdemeanor.[1] This action constituted a felony in the state of Florida, and the man was charged with the crime. After being arrested, Gideon requested the assistance of counsel in his case. Gideon’s request for counsel was denied by the trial court, and Gideon went on to represent himself in his proceeding.[2] As a layperson, he put on his best defense. Gideon made an opening argument, performed cross- examinations, presented his own witnesses, refused to testify himself[3], and even made a closing argument. Alas, his greatest efforts were unsuccessful, and he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. But, this is where the story begins.

            On appeal to the Supreme Court Gideon argued that his rights were violated by not being appointed counsel. Ironically, for this appeal Gideon was appointed counsel because he was acting in forma pauperis[4]. The Court found in favor of Gideon saying, “The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law.”[5] In every criminal case a litigant is guaranteed counsel.  In civil matters, however, Gideon does not apply. Hypothetically, if a person were to violently rape and murder 17 women, 8 men, and a goat, that individual would be guaranteed an attorney to ensure justice. Yet, if a mother of 4 was wrongfully evicted from her home and subsequently lost custody of her children, that mother would not be guaranteed the same protection from the system.

            The University of Baltimore School of Law Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts’ Truancy Court Program (TCP) uses a holistic approach to address the problem of truancy in Baltimore City schools. Truancy is often not the major problem but is a mere symptom of a deeper issue. Every known aspect of a student’s life is taken into account in order to offer services to the child and to the child’s parents, thus alleviating underlying causes of truancy. One of the services provided by the Truancy Court Program is limited legal advice concerning the child and the child’s living situation. Common issues that these families face are the need for creation or enforcement of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), homelessness, drug abuse, and poverty. The TCP gives a select few families access to invaluable legal advice that these families may not have access to otherwise. For example, a parent or child may reveal at the TCP session that they are homeless. With assistance from the TCP, students have received assigned “yellow bus service” or school provided cab service to commute to and from school.[6]

            The lack of a Civil Gideon[7] in our court system has caused many to question the true legitimacy of the legal process, especially for those who cannot afford an attorney. Projects like the TCP help to mitigate the damage that the pro se[8] problem creates, and this impact must continue to expand and intensify until the system is corrected. Remember that the highest court in the nation recognizes that even the educated layman will do little better than clumsily stumble through the system without representation, and then consider that the majority of pro se litigants are unrepresented because they cannot afford an attorney. The conclusion that you reach is that the pro se problem disproportionately impacts the low income community, those who often need representation the most. The only things that overshadow barriers to justice presented in cases between two pro se litigants are the barriers to justice facing a pro se litigant who must argue against a represented party.

            When discussing pro se litigants, it is also important to recognize that many people without access to legal minds may never know how or why to get into court to begin with. While participating in the TCP, I have learned from our attorneys that there are specific requirements for IEPs and for those experiencing homelessness. This knowledge was also communicated to  parents, who are then able to put that knowledge to work.

            In an ideal world the TCP would not be necessary, because everyone would have access to legal representation. We do not live in an ideal world, however--in fact far from it.  So we must work to move closer to a more perfect world. An examination of just one of the many needs that the TCP fills shows just how important the services the TCP offers are to those that it serves. Hopefully, the program will continue to grow and expand not only in Maryland but also in the other 49 states of the union until we can say that we finally have a truly perfect union.   

[1] For a full review of the case, including facts and holdings, please see Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).
[2] The trial judge explained to Gideon that the laws of Florida required representation in cases concerning capital offenses.
[3] In criminal cases, the defendant has the right to refuse to testify under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This is quite often in the best interest of the defendant for many reasons.
[4] In forma pauperis is Latin for “in the character or in the manner of a pauper”
[5] Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 344-345 (1963).
[6] For insight into issues with transportation in Baltimore City Schools please see CFCC blog entry “The Wheels on the Bus and the Truancy Court Program” by Samantha Sammartano posted Friday, November 7, 2014 at 12:47 pm.
[7] “Civil Gideon” is the right to an attorney in civil cases. This right has yet to be established.
[8] “Pro se” is Latin meaning “for self.” It is the term used to describe litigants that are not represented by counsel.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

PTSD in Children

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, most commonly known as PTSD, is usually associated with combat veterans. Many people are not aware that PTSD can affect children and teens, as well. Children and teens could develop PTSD if they have lived through an event that could have caused them or someone else to be killed or badly hurt.[1] The stressful or traumatic event involves a situation where someone’s life has been threatened or severe injury has occurred.[2] PTSD also can occur after the unexpected or violent death of a family member or close friend or following serious harm or threat of death or injury to a loved one.[3] Studies show that, overall, about 8 percent of Americans suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives.[4] But the rates appear to be much higher in communities such as poor, largely African American populations, where high rates of violent crime have persisted, despite a national decline.[5]The majority of research on chronic community violence exposure focuses on the perpetrators of the violence, not on the youth who are its direct or indirect victims. [6] School-based treatment and preventive interventions are needed for children at elevated risk for exposure to community violence.[7]

            This is extremely disheartening, particularly when thinking about the number of juveniles who reside in juvenile detention, correctional, and/or residential facilities. As of 2011, 61, 423 youth resided in juvenile detention, correctional, and/or residential facilities in the United States.[8] It seems as if it would be more beneficial to treat the youth for their PTSD before locking them up or sending them away to juvenile detention, correctional, or residential facilities. If you can get to the root of the problem while the child is young, it seems as if that would be more beneficial than hoping that when the child’s punishment has been completed, they will have changed for the better. This comports with a concept that is taught consistently by my Family Law professor, Professor Barbara Babb.  An approach grounded in Therapeutic Jurisprudence seems like a better answer for most kids than punishing them. Therapeutic Jurisprudence is a perspective or framework, and its use suggests the need to conduct empirical research to determine whether outcomes resulting from the application of substantive laws, legal rules, and legal procedures and from the behavior of legal actors have therapeutic (helpful) or anti-therapeutic (harmful) consequences, both intended and unintended.[9] The system does not seem to be working as is, so why not give a different approach to treating delinquent behavior a try? At least it would help us to determine a better system for youth in the juvenile justice system. What do you think?

[1] “PTSD: National Center for PTSD”
[2] “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)”
[3] “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder”
[4] “The PTSD Crisis That’s Being Ignored: Americans Wounded in Their Own Neighborhoods”
[5] Id.
[6] “Community Violence and Youth: Affect, Behavior, Substance Abuse and Academics”
[7] Id.
[8] “Youth Residing in Juvenile Detention, Correctional and/or Residential Facilities”,133,18,17,14/any/319,320
[9] “Therapeutic Jurisprudence” by David Wesler

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Wheels on the Bus and the Truancy Court Program

            The Truancy Court Program (TCP) is a wonderful initiative created and implemented by the University of Baltimore School of Law Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC).  The TCP seeks to address the reasons why students miss school, amounting to thousands of school days that are missed each year by truant students in Baltimore. 
            While we, as CFCC Student Fellows who are new to the TCP this semester, may have felt a sense of hopelessness at some point during the semester, we have recently experienced a turnaround.  Over the past couple of weeks, for example, I have grown attached to several TCP  students and have felt genuine pride in their accomplishments.  I think that they appreciated what I had to say and the effort I was putting in to get to know them, not simply to scold or “fix” them.  And it made a difference.
            When discussing the reasons underlying their absences, many of these young people say that MTA (city) buses often pass them by or are unreliable.  The best remedy in this situation, in my opinion, is implementing a busing system for the public schools.  Students would have a set time when the school bus would pick them up in the morning, and they would travel directly to school. 
            Students tell us that they are sometimes afraid to catch a city bus.  School buses would provide students with a safe and secure means of transportation.  In addition, the camaraderie generated when a group of young people waits day after day for the bus becomes a vehicle for creating and nurturing strong friendships.   Students learn how to get along with their peers and how to look out for themselves and their friends.  But most importantly, developing a group of neighborhood buddies at the bus stop can be the catalyst for lifelong friendships among children who will grow up together.  The children will learn that the definition “family” extends to the bonds they form with other folks, too. 
            Additional benefits to a separate school busing system include, among others, limiting students’ exposure to extreme weather conditions – thereby removing the excuse that a student is absent because it was raining or snowing – and reducing travel time to school.  It is impossible to put a dollar sign on keeping children safe and implementing programs that will promote their education.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Problem Solving Courts Are Effective But Limited Due To Underfunded Treatment Resources. 

In the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children, and the Courts Student Fellows Program class, we have learned about a variety of problem solving courts in Maryland.  One recent creation are drug treatment courts, which in Maryland began under former Chief Judge Robert M. Bell’s administration.  The court was created from the perspective that a collaborative, problem solving effort between departments, with oversight for accountability, would help reduce addiction-driven crime and drug use.  Drug treatment courts throughout Maryland now assist criminal defendants charged with non-violent crimes through rehabilitative methods instead of punishment.  
One of the many experiential learning opportunities offered through the Student Fellows Program class was ability to  observe the collaboration in a drug treatment court.  As a clinical social worker, my prior professional experience fostered preconceived notions of drug treatment courts that were relatively accurate.  I believed courts were not likely to order evaluations without a defendant’s prior consent to treatment, as this would be deemed expending unnecessary resources without commitment to follow through.  Yet, defendants who are entangled in the disease of addiction and the reality of current criminal charges can feel pressure to commit to treatment without specifics on type, duration, location, or treatment expectations, only later to decide the punitive option is more suitable for them.  Further, treatment resources are limited, resulting in treatment history and funding being a priority over an individual’s needs.  This can be very frustrating for case workers, individuals, and families attempting to deal with the disease of addiction, where the potential for relapse is known to be part of managing treatment expectations.  At the same time, courts do not have the authority to order private treatment facilities to contractually accept an individual, and state funded residential treatment resources are extremely limited.  Thus, individuals desperate for help frequently find themselves in limbo.  It often takes time to find a drug treatment program that will accept an individual who has a long history of treatment, limited personal funding, and a negative outlook or attitude toward treatment. This leaves courts to constantly balance complex individual needs with resource demands, availability, and policies. 
Specifically noteworthy to me during my observation of a Baltimore City drug treatment court were two defendants.  One who was sitting in front of me had made remarkable progress but with great struggles.  He appeared to be invested in the drug treatment court model and concerned with other defendants who were currently facing adversity in their treatment progress.  It was obvious the drug treatment court model had paid dividends in his life.  Then, more specifically, I vividly recall a defendant who appeared before the court with a “recommendation” “requiring” residential treatment, yet the planning quickly shifted to an outpatient treatment plan when a lack of funding for inpatient treatment was revealed.  What were the court’s options for this defendant?  Should he remain detained awaiting necessary, available, residential treatment, or for should he be released to an outpatient program and try to manage this option?  Neither plan seemed viable, but the court ultimately discharged this defendant to outpatient treatment. 

These complicating factors can easily turn a collaborative effort into finger pointing, especially if the plan in place results in individual or community harm.  In reality courts, departments, agencies, and staff generally are doing the best they can with resources available.  Accordingly, my drug treatment court observation confirmed for me the immediate need for legislative action to significantly increase funding for mental health treatment, encompassing substance abuse, as a top priority.  Underfunding results in insufficient treatment resources and often leads to increased recidivism, resulting in a higher cost to society.  Funding for preventive measures has always been more cost-effective in the long term than reactive measures.  Yet, as a nation, we still let crises trigger change.  Why?  When sufficient funding is available to advances more effective resources for individuals in need, such as drug treatment courts and other problems solving court models, the outcomes for individuals and families are greater, all to the betterment of our communities and our nation.

Monday, October 27, 2014

They Fight For Us, Can We Show the Same Respect? A Call for Veterans Courts in Maryland

            In 2012, there were over 1 million American soldiers in active duty across the world.[1] Luckily this number has dramatically decreased in the recent years, but that leaves the United States with a growing number of veterans returning from war trying to readjust to civilian life. Veterans have to deal with the tragedies that they witnessed while serving their country, and most fail to seek any help to deal with what they experienced. Issues such as posttraumatic stress disorder and substance abuse are common problems faced by these returning veterans. These problems have been linked to increased criminal behavior, landing a number of our veterans in our criminal justice system. The men and women who were brave enough to fight for our country now face time in prison.

To combat this threat of prison, Judge Robert Russell developed the first Veterans Court in Buffalo, New York, in 2008.[2] Veterans Courts are problem-solving courts aimed at helping veterans deal with psychological problems resulting from war, while still holding the veteran accountable for the criminal behavior. In areas that have Veterans Courts, veterans who enter the criminal justice system have the option to accept treatment from Veterans Courts. Once accepted into the VC treatment program, the adversarial roles of the attorneys dissolve, and the parties become a team focused on helping the veteran. The team develops a plan of treatment, including mental health counseling, substance abuse counseling, and help with employment, housing, and education. The veteran is also paired with a peer mentor who can help the veteran deal with problems that are unique to serving in active combat. The judge leads the treatment team and ensures that the veteran is following the treatment. The whole process is individualized for each veteran and looks for a holistic approach incorporating a wide array of services.[3] Everyone on the team is focused on helping the veteran succeed through the program and get the necessary help he/she needs.

While the concept of Veterans Courts is still relatively new, the impact of the courts has been favorable. For example, in Pennsylvania, those participating in the Veterans Court program had a recidivism rate of one percent.[4] Similarly in New York, veterans had a recidivism rate of 40 percent when not in a veterans treatment program, and that number dropped to 6 percent for those veterans who completed the treatment program.[5]

Maryland has approximately 476,000 veterans residing in the state today.[6] In 2012, Governor Martin O’Malley approved a task force to research the effectiveness of Veterans Courts.[7] The task force strongly recommended a pilot program for Veteran Courts in Maryland, and a Veterans Court should start in 2015 in Prince George’s County.[8] Unfortunately, this is all dependent upon funding. While funding is a problem for all programs across the state, I believe that this program is so beneficial for the veterans across Maryland that this program needs to get started so veterans can get the help they deserve. These people have put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms.  We should be able to provide necessary services to help veterans return to civilian life.

[2] Hon. C. Phillip Nichols Jr., Veterans Courts: A New Concept for Maryland, 47 Md. B.J. 43, 44 (2014)
[3] See generally Nichols, supra note 2;
[4] Nichols, supra note 2, at 49.
[5] Id.
[6] Id. at 44.
[7] Beth Totman, Seeing the Justice System Through a Soldier’s Eyes: A Call to Action for Maryland to Adopt a Veterans Treatment Court System, 16 J. Health Care L. & Pol’y 431, 434 (2013).
[8] Nichols, supra note 2, at 46.