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Drug Courts Offer Attorneys a New Way to Advocate for Clients

Jeanine McKelvey, Attorney, Legal Advocates for Children and Youth, A Program of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, CA

Summary: The author shares how she has been required to develop skills different than those taught in law school in her work representing children in dependency cases.


In courtrooms around the country, a new way of addressing cases that involve addiction has been developed. Drug courts are designed to help prevent the revolving door to the court system that we too often see. In the Juvenile Dependency Court of Santa Clara County in California, the dependency wellness court (DWC) has been described as the "Cadillac" of drug courts. Each week, parents whose children are involved in the juvenile court due to substance abuse come to DWC and are surrounded by a team of professionals to look at their progress. There are representatives from the Department of Alcohol and Drug Services, Mental Health, Domestic Violence, Social Services, First 5 California, County Counsel and Legal Advocates for Children and Youth (LACY). I am an attorney for LACY and we are the voice of the child in that room.

Reunification rates for parents who do not participate in DWC are substantially lower than parents who do. In California, 44% of children in the dependency system are returned to their parents and successfully have their case dismissed. Parents who voluntarily participate in DWC and successfully complete the program have their children returned and the case successfully dismissed 76% of the time. That is a 32% difference for the parents who choose this voluntary program. Welfare and Institutions Code section 300 governs cases in the dependency system. Statutes only dictate a return to court every six months post disposition. That means that after parents are given their case plan it can be six months before the court has any idea how they are progressing or if there are roadblocks preventing them from accessing services. Parents who voluntarily participate in DWC initially come back every two weeks. This allows them to identify the programs, connect with providers and ensure the services being offered are addressing the issues that brought the family into the court system. It also allows the team to encourage, connect and hold parents accountable at the early stages of their recovery. LACY has the opportunity to remind parents of their children and how much they deserve a loving, safe and drug free childhood.

For many parents, the love of their children is the one thing that may break through the horrible cycle of addition. A large number of the parents we see have been using substances since they were children themselves and come from homes where substance abuse was the normal way of life. Talking with them, letting them know that the "system" really does care and that there are people who want to see them succeed can make a huge difference.

I am able to talk to fathers about the importance of their participation in their children's lives. I will never forget the look a dad gave me when I told him he is the role model that will most help determine the partner that his daughter will choose when she is older. Through his tears he shook his head and smiled at me. It was clear, that like all parents, he wanted more for his daughter.

I am able to talk to mothers about their children's development and ways to keep the face of their child with them as they go through a day of temptation. For parents that are struggling or not serious in their attempts to change, I can talk about the timelines for getting their children back, how much time they have remaining and what the court will be looking to see at the next hearing. Upon graduation, the parents are asked what was the turning point. Almost without exception they say "It was when I realized I was going to lose my children if I didn't stop." Knowing that my words helped a parent change is something that makes it all worthwhile.

In law school and in practice, attorneys are taught to look at a case, identify the legal issues, argue zealously for our clients and know the law. In DWC we are required to use other skills. Learning about development milestones for children, parenting techniques, drug addiction and treatment, how drug abuse effects mental health diagnosis, domestic violence and a myriad of other topics that law school didn't teach. However, with that knowledge, I am able to more effectively bring the face and voice of the child into the courtroom and just maybe reach the parent.

In a dependency system full of children who are there due to their parents’ substance abuse addictions, programs like DWC are a benefit to everyone. Having the voice of the child present in those hearings is not only important, it is imperative. Having the attorney who represents them actively participate keeps the focus on their children and the reason they are working so hard to beat their addiction. It may not be the traditional role of the attorney, but it allows us to zealously advocate for our clients in a whole new way.

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