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).

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Collaborative Family Law Works

Collaborative family law is a non-traditional type of dispute resolution that focuses on the unification of the parties in an efficient and therapeutic manner.  Unlike the traditional litigation process, collaborative law negotiations occur outside the courtroom and commit to cooperation and honesty.   This commitment to transparent communication encourages parties to work together toward a mutually agreeable settlement.
The traditional collaborative law model consists of an  attorney for each client, who agree to work together with the parties toward a single goal of reaching a fair settlement.   Furthermore, each attorney can consult experts,  such as a child or financial specialist, to further advance the transparency of the negotiations.
Unlike mediation, each client’s lawyer is present during settlement and can provide legal advice during face to face negotiations.  The term “fair” is used because both parties must agree before a settlement is reached. Consequently, parties are more satisfied with their decisions because they are in control and are not solely relying on a judge’s interpretation of their family’s dispute.
Secondly, unlike most litigation, collaborative law takes into account the present and future needs of the clients.  Here, clients can schedule meetings without waiting for court dates, which often can require long waits before hearings.  This delay in litigation can create new issues for the  litigants. 
Moreover, unlike other settlements, which can occur under the threat of  litigation, collaborative law eliminates the adversarial element by requiring both attorneys to withdraw from representation if an agreement is not reached. This encourages each party to disclose privileged information, which cannot be used during  any necessary litigation, in a setting which preserves the privacy of each party. This privacy element is often key to restoring and keeping communications open in family disputes.  Many attorneys, however, believe this requirement to withdraw  is a barrier to the widespread practice of collaborative law.  Withdrawal of representation and requiring parties to hire new attorneys causes inflated legal costs and eliminates the  lawyers’ familiarity with the case. 
In summary, one must remember that collaborative law is only one method to resolve family legal disputes and may not be the correct approach for everyone. This is especially true in cases involving domestic violence, as these often  require a resolution by a judicial officer.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Family Courts and Assessments for American Family Improvements

There is a profound distaste for the harsh realities that have settled among a number of poor families, children, single parents, delinquent teens, gay and lesbian couples, and abused spouses. Tomorrow a child in Georgia will be placed in the state’s custody and a family in Chicago will be completely dismantled through a divorce settlement. People all over America are affected by the legal challenges that can arise out of family relations. In 2013 family and juvenile cases made up nearly 130,000 of the 271, 000 cases presented in Maryland’s state courts.[1] That is nearly half of the state court filings, and these numbers represent a similar pattern for state courts across the nation.

While we may have laws and policies to improve the issues, there is a lack of emphasis on providing a comfortable setting that encourages positivity and can essentially lead to a more acceptable outcome for the families and children involved. The court house, for many families confronting their legal issues, can be frightening and traumatic, and not everyone has the means to sufficiently cope with their problems. Thus, it is important for us to have standards for each individual with direct contact or influence on the family members involved in a legal proceeding.

In 1999 judges within Maryland’s Family Division began an effort to improve the court’s effectiveness and partnered with other legal professionals to establish a set of performance standards and measures for Maryland family courts.[2] This team also created a specific mission statement that established a foundation for some of the following goals and values:

·         Stabilizing families in transition

·         Promoting co-parenting relationships

·         Fostering parents as primary family decision-makers

·         Maximizing the use of alternative dispute resolution methods and programs

·         Providing safety and protection

·         Preserving family relationships where possible

·         Supporting linkages between resource needs and available resources on behalf of parents and their children


The performance standards and measures were established for those individuals servicing families within the court house and for others who have direct contact with the families regarding their case. These standards sought to improve the quality of service for these fragile families and in the end provide the highest quality of care.2 I agree with the implementation of these standards because I believe that families experiencing legal issues should be approached with consideration, compassion, and care. It may be difficult to completely overcome the “win or lose” effect of a court proceeding, but, with these standards, we can offer hope in an otherwise seemingly hopeless situation.


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Applications of Human Development to Truancy

In administering the Truancy Court Program (TCP), the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) applies one of its founding philosophies, the ecology of human development, to a real-world setting. The ecology of human development focuses on four different systems that effect affect a child’s daily routine, though children may not be aware of all of them. Those four systems are:

            • the microsystem: where children have contact with those influential in their lives (siblings,
               parents, teachers)
            • the mesosystem: relationships and connections between microsystems (home-school, etc.)
            • the exosystem: where children don’t participate but where significant decisions are made 
               affecting child and adult (choice of employment)
            • the macrosystem: the blueprints for organizing the institutional life of a society

TCP is uniquely suited for such a philosophy, as both its in- and out-of-school components factor into at least one of the above systems. The ecology of human development complements CFCC’s other underlying philosophy, therapeutic jurisprudence, to achieve goals across all system levels.

CFCC Student Fellows and staff join faculty from participating TCP schools to interact with program participants at the micro level. In weekly meetings, they assess problems occurring between the home-school relationship (mesosystem) that cause students to arrive late to school or not at all. These problems frequently involve a lack of communication at the micro level between parents, students, and teachers. A deficiency in communication can lead to misunderstandings between participants, which eventually blossoms into distrust of the school system at the meso level. Events at the micro level, therefore, greatly affect what goes on up the chain, which is why the TCP’s on-the-ground approach is so important. The home-school relationship is quintessential to what the TCP does, but there are other important relationships? Can you think of anything else?

The data-gathering component of the TCP can influence policymakers in the exosystem to make changes that attempt to eliminate the types of barriers to school attendance over which children have little control, such as transportation. Lack of site-specific transportation and reliance by children on general public transit systems is a good example of an early exosystem problem the TCP has encountered.  A parent’s choice of employment is another, more private example of an exosystem issue that can affect a child, as a parent who works far away from the school, or who also needs to take public transportation, may be unable to ensure that their child gets to school on time.

Finally, the macrosystem is the farthest we can pull back from the TCP table, and, thus, it is what the program has the least power to influence. Participation in the TCP by local judges and its public funding may relate to the program’s impact at this level. While the TCP has its greatest influence at the microsystem and mesosystem levels, it is at the macrosystem level where aggregate change begins to build up, and where, hopefully, the seeds of change planted at the other system levels will be nurtured by policymakers as well as by parents.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Field Trip to the Baltimore City Circuit Court Family Division

On September 17, 2014, the Center for Families, Children and the Courts (“CFCC”) Student Fellows visited the Family Division of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City located at 111 North Calvert Street in Baltimore.  We received a tour from T. Sue German, the Family Division Administrator. 

The tour was a great opportunity to see how the Unified Family Court system operates.  The Family Division strives to efficiently resolve matters involving families, such as, divorce, guardianship, child support, custody, and visitation matters.  Further we learned that approximately 88% of litigants appear pro se.

The Family Division tailors its approach to each individual family to address the family’s specific needs.  The Family Division has many resources for the variety of clients with which it deals.  For example, in the case of contested issues, the Family Division provides educational seminars such as COPE and SHAPE for parents and mediation if there are custody and visitation issues.  Also, at scheduling conferences, the Family Division refers clients to other resources to address their needs, such as referrals to substance abuse services, for custody evaluations, and for other social services. 

The tour revealed that the Family Division has faced budget cuts in recent years, however, which is surprising in light of the volume of cases that are dealt with in the Family Division.  On a given day, attorneys at the Family Division Pro Se Project assist approximately 35-40 litigants.  Further, cutting back on the resources available to the Family Division impedes its ability to effectively and efficiently deal with all the litigants’ issues it confronts.

The actual facility itself was very warm and inviting for the families and children who frequent it. The walls are adorned with art made by children in the community, and there is a staffed playroom for children while their parents attend to their various matters at the Family Division.  It was really wonderful to have the opportunity to tour.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Truancy and the Special Education Student

Truancy is a dilemma frequently facing school systems.  A violation of compulsory attendance requirements can, in the worst case, lead to significant punitive consequences for a family.  What happens, however, when the student exhibiting truant tendencies is a special education student? What kind of special obligations, if any, does a school district have to a child with a disability?

In Maryland, there is a strong positive correlation between rates of habitual truancy and drop out rates and special education students. Baltimore City ranks among the highest in the State in those variables for which positive correlations with truancy were found. 1. There are many explanations for this positive correlation. First, the difficulties that special education students face in order to access the curriculum can make every day in school feel like a battle. Second, special education students are more susceptible to becoming victims of bullying, again deterring students from regularly coming to school. Third, the student's disability may include an emotional disorder that results in inappropriate types of behaviors or feelings under normal circumstances.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), each student is entitled to a free, appropriate, public education. Additionally, the Child Find requirements under IDEA require all school districts to identify, locate, and evaluate all students who are suspected of having a disability. 34 CFR 300.111. Although lack of attendance on its own does not qualify a student for special education services, it is a factor to be taken into consideration. 34 CFR 300.8(a)(1). 2. Once a truant student is identified as having a disability, he/she is eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in order to assure that the student is receiving  free, appropriate, public education.

One component of the IEP may include a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA), a "collaborative, student-centered process for gathering information that reliably predicts the conditions and/or circumstances concerning why a student is exhibiting an inappropriate behavior," in this case the inappropriate behavior being truancy. 3. Following the FBA is a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), which includes strategies such as positive behavior reinforcements, program modifications, and supplementary aids and services that can assist the student in overcoming habitual truancy. The BIP includes a plan to monitor the student's progress to ensure that the student now is able to access the curriculum.

These programs are very helpful in addressing a special education student's truancy issue head-on. Although there is still much work to do, these federally mandated obligations prevent hundreds of students annually from dropping out of school. It would be wonderful to find a way for similar programs to be available for students without disabilities but who have problems regularly attending.  But that is a conversation for another day...