Because the CPS/juvenile court system is NOT your friend, and because you are in an adversarial (oppositional) relationship with CPS:
* Do not pour your heart out to CPS. Always remember that anything you say to anyone in the CPS system can, and often will, be used against you. So don’t pour your heart out to CPS workers, or to mediators, evaluators, investigators, court personnel, or anyone else. Think before you speak. Always be aware that, a) these workers are experienced at drawing out statements from you that you would not have given if you had time to think about it, b) they have the power to take your child, and c) your words can easily be misrepresented.
Also, be aware that even if you can handle yourself well in business and social situations, it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to handle yourself well in conversations with the CPS system. This is because the subject matter of your conversations with CPS is so near and dear and painful to your heart. This makes you very vulnerable to the slightest of manipulations. Many CPS workers don’t hesitate to play on this vulnerability.
* Decide carefully about when and how to assert your rights. Understand how you are in a double bind when you assert your rights with CPS. Once you realize the risks of saying too much in your conversations with CPS, you might conclude that your best bet is just not talk to CPS at all. After all, like everyone else in America, you have a right to remain silent. Indeed, if you were being accused of a crime in the criminal system, every attorney in the world would advise you to remain silent. ‘Don’t even talk to the police’, they would tell you. ‘Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.’ Even a person accused of murder has a right to remain silent, and to refuse to cooperate with government officials unless ordered to do so by a judge.
Naturally, you have the same rights to remain silent in your dealings with the CPS system. Additionally, you have a right to refuse to let CPS into your home unless CPS has obtained a search warrant. You have a right not to cooperate with CPS. You have a right not to participate in any of the programs CPS says it wants you to go to. And you have many other rights as well. After all, you live in America, right? And no government agency can start ordering your life around, telling you to do this or that, or to go here or there, if they don’t apply due process and present solid evidence in a court of law proving you did something against the law. The only order you have to obey is a judge’s order!
But here’s the other half of the ‘damned if you do, and damned if you don’t’ dilemma you have with CPS. On the one hand, since you’re in an adversarial relationship with CPS, the best legal advice would be for you to assert your rights. On the other hand, CPS wields the ultimate awesome power of being able to take your child with the vaguest of accusations, the most minimal of evidence, and only the very weakest system of due process in place to protect you. And that right there is the catch. The double bind you are in. The terrible injustice and the near tyranny of CPS power.
The legal and evidentiary constraints on CPS powers are so minimal, that if you do assert your rights to CPS, the CPS worker can easily retaliate against you using the system’s virtually unchecked power against you. The worker can easily make vague and prejudiced accusations against you such as ‘instability’, ‘alienating your child from the other parent’, ‘failure to protect’, ‘should have known about the abuse’, or ‘engaging in domestic violence’ even though you’re the victim of the violence. (None of which accusations are crimes.) And then the worker can support that accusation against you in the juvenile court with the smallest tidbit of evidence, even the most bogus of evidence, or with evidence that wouldn’t even be admissible in a criminal court. And with that the CPS system can take your child.
(Remember, the CPS/juvenile court system operates on the ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard, 51% of the evidence, the lowest judicial standard of evidence. This means that all CPS has to do is present to the court 1% more evidence on their side than you present on your side, and CPS wins. So once CPS makes an accusation against you, it is extremely difficult for you to defend yourself, and very easy for CPS to railroad the case against you.)
* So here are a couple tips for asserting your rights with CPS
All the above adds up to the fact that you have to make some very careful and difficult decisions about if, when, and how you want to assert your rights with CPS. The goal is for you to get the most benefit and protection from asserting your rights while at the same time remaining cooperative enough to keep from triggering CPS into making new accusations against you. Our general advice is that if or when you do assert your rights, be sure to do so in a tone that is cooperative, professional, and polite.
Here are some suggestions for different degrees of asserting your rights:
a. In a situation where a CPS worker intrudes on you and you want to temporarily back them down and keep the situation more under your own control.
For example, if a CPS worker knocks on your door and wants to come into your home, instead of saying, “Show me a search warrant or take a hike!”, try this. Give the worker a friendly greeting, and say, “I’m sorry but this time won’t work for me. I’m already late getting to an appointment. Please call me tomorrow morning and I’ll make an appointment with you.”
Or if a CPS worker calls you on the phone, tell the worker you can’t talk right now. Tell the worker you’d like to make an appointment later. Or if you’re asked a question you don’t want to answer, don’t say, “That’s none of your damn business,” no matter how offensive the question. Tell the worker you don’t feel the question is relevant, or that you’d like to answer the question at another time. Or, better yet, tell the worker you’d like to answer the question in writing. This gives you time to think through your answer. It guarantees your words won’t get misrepresented. And at the same time, it shows your willingness to cooperate.
Keeping meeting times under your control at least gives you psychological advantages as well as the benefit of being able to prepare for your interactions with CPS. It also sends a clear message to the CPS worker that you won’t be easily trampled upon. But remember that one rule to live by to make this work best for you is to always keep your manner of communication cooperative, professional, and polite.
Another rule to live by is this. Try not to get upset if the worker gets intimidating or threatening.
For example, if a worker says to you, “Either you let me into your home now, or next time I come back it will be to take your child,” don’t take the bait! Don’t panic. Don’t say, “Over my dead body!” Instead, take a breath. Be confident in standing your ground. And just repeat your position, “I’m sorry, I’m late for an appointment. Call me tomorrow and I’ll be happy to make an appointment! Remember, CPS workers are fully aware of your rights, so don’t let them goad you into relinquishing those rights, or into responding in a way that can later be used against you.
NOTE 1: Yes, there’s no doubt about it. It’s very difficult to keep your balance emotionally when you’re dealing with CPS because just the thought of losing your child strikes at the core of your being. And the thought of losing your child to an unjust abuse of power, ignites every cell in your body into panic and rage. Holding back your instincts in these moments is a near unbearable act of restraint. So you need to remind yourself again and again and again. The best way to save your child is to maintain your cool in all interactions with the CPS system.
NOTE 2: Always write up notes for yourself on these interactions with CPS right after they occur.
b. Set conditions on your dealings with CPS.
Another way of asserting your rights and shifting the balance of power a little more in your favor is by setting conditions on your dealings with CPS. One condition that we highly recommend is that you only meet with CPS if you are permitted to tape record the meetings. Another condition that we highly recommend is that you always have a support person accompany you in all your interactions with the CPS system.
Before you set such conditions, think it through ahead of time. Think it through a couple of moves so that you don’t get caught off guard. And so that you can keep things moving in the direction that most suits your needs. What do you want to do if the CPS worker says, ‘no, you can’t tape record the meeting’? Do you want to give in at that point and go ahead with the meeting? Do you want to go to the worker’s supervisor? Do you want to ask that the meeting be postponed until the issue gets resolved? Or do you want to simply walk away and refuse to meet? The only right answer to these questions is the answer you come to after thinking it over ahead of time.
If you want to protest a refusal of any of your conditions, do so in writing. Write a short note to the worker’s supervisor or other ranking official. Explain that you want to cooperate, but that you also want the worker to respect your rights. Keep it short. Keep a copy. And remember: cooperative, professional, polite!
NOTE: In California, you have a right to tape record in person meetings either openly or clandestinely, but you do not have a right to secretly tape record telephone conversations. Be sure and check the laws in your state.
c. In situations where you want to fully assert your fundamental rights, always try to do so in writing.
If you want to fully assert your fundamental right to remain silent, or to absolutely refuse unwarranted entry into your home, or to assert any other of the many rights you have, do so as much as possible in writing. Date, write, and sign a very short statement. Make copies for yourself to keep in a safe place. Then deliver, mail, or fax your statement to both the CPS worker and to the head of CPS.
There are a number of form letters on the Internet for asserting your rights with CPS. You can use those letters. Or your notification can be as simple as the following:
To CPS worker Nancy Wilson,
I am very concerned about my own and my child’s welfare. With that concern I am choosing to assert my right to remain silent in this process. I will not have any further conversations with you regarding this case.
Mother of Gabriela Martinez
4. Know precisely what you are being officially accused of, and the evidence being presented against you. Read all the paperwork CPS or the juvenile court gives you. Pay special attention to the CPS report(s).
Reading CPS and court reports can be difficult at first because much of the language in reports and court papers is unfamiliar. But don’t give up. Just keep reading. It doesn’t take long to start catching on to the lingo, particularly if you’re willing to keep asking questions along the way.
*** One of the very first things you need to look for, circle, and underline in these materials are the exact written words of the CPS accusations against you. If you don’t know the exact written words of the accusations against you, it’s virtually impossible to defend yourself. If CPS is preparing to put you through a program, or take your child, or hold your child, the CPS report will have a summary list at some place in the report that tells the judge – in writing – why the CPS worker believes it necessary to take the action against you. This list is the list of accusations against you. Find it!
One of the first things we ask women when they come to us with a CPS problem is, “What are the CPS accusations against you?” So many women say they don’t know, or they repeat something the social worker has said. But it does not matter what the social worker says. What the social worker says to you is not official, and it can change from one day to the next. What counts, what matters, what you need to know, is what the social worker (and evaluators, mediators, etc.) put into writing in their reports.
So always read what’s in the reports if you want to know the real deal of what your up against. Knowing exactly what you’re being officially accused of is the absolute essential first step to preparing a good defense.
*** Another thing to look for (and circle and underline) as you read the CPS report or court documents are any untrue written statements that are made, particularly untrue statements that reflect badly on you. It will be very helpful to you if you make a list on a separate sheet of paper of all the untrue or misconstrued evidence and statements that are being made against you. That list can guide your thinking as you develop a corresponding list of points and evidence to defend yourself.
NOTE 1: You have a right to see and get copies of ANY and ALL reports pertaining to your child’s case. This includes all court documents. If you are not automatically given copies of these documents as they’re generated, ask your social worker to get you a copy within 24 hours. If this doesn’t get a copy in your hands, immediately write a one page letter to the head of social services and to the judge on your case. Your up-to-date knowledge of what’s in these reports is just too vital to your future to allow them any leeway in providing you with your reports.
NOTE 2: Don’t wait until the day before the next hearing or meeting before you start reading the documents. Read everything as soon after you get it as possible.
NOTE 3: There’s no doubt that reading these documents can be very depressing and dehumanizing because of the strange and often distorted way that CPS workers write about your family. Unfortunately, the unpleasantness of reading these documents is one reason many women put off reading them until it’s too late to effectively respond. But you just can’t afford to let these documents go unread. So try asking a friend or supportive family member to sit down at your side and read the documents with you. Not only can a friend help you get through these documents emotionally, a good friend will often notice important points in the documents that you can easily miss because you’re so emotionally upset.
* If you don’t speak and read English well, insist on getting materials in your own language. Insist on it, as many times as is necessary. It’s extremely important. And if your CPS worker or any one else in the system is speaking your language poorly, ask for a translator. And ask again. If the worker doesn’t get you an interpreter after you’ve requested one, don’t pretend you understand what’s being said. Just the opposite, you need to keep indicating you don’t understand what’s being said. It’s just so critical to you that you understand everything that’s being said and written about your child’s case.
If your worker fails to provide you with proper language interpretation and written translations, try to find someone who can write out your requests and complaints. Your letter to the judge or to the head of CPS can be as simple as what follows.
To the Juvenile Court Judge,
CPS is looking into an allegation of abuse regarding my child. The social worker, Ms. Seri, has given me a report and other documents pertaining to the case. All these documents are in English.
I want very much to read these documents and inform myself so I can best respond in a helpful way. The problem is I don’t speak or read English well.
Three weeks ago, I asked the CPS worker to provide me with translated copies of the report. I also asked her to use a competent interpreter when discussing my child’s case with me. But to date she has not done so.
I am requesting that you postpone all proceedings on this case until I am provided with proper language translations and an interpreter.
5. Get a notebook. Carry it with you everywhere. Write down brief notes on all your interactions, thoughts, and questions regarding the CPS case. Your notebook can win your case!
Being involved with CPS is a huge emotional strain in a system that is unfamiliar, threatening, and bewildering. Getting and keeping a notebook may seem like one more chore too many. But, the reality is this notebook can save you tremendous time and anxiety. It can put you in control. Your notebook can win your case. So get that notebook and carry it with you at all times! Some of your best thoughts and strategies on your case will come to you at the oddest moments.
And use it:
* Take notes at all meetings, hearings, and phone conversations.
* Write down names, questions, reminders, and thoughts on evidence.
* Carefully outline what you want to say, what you want to ask, and what you want to accomplish, before you go into meetings or court hearings. Take time in meetings to refer to your notes.
* Don’t forget to date your entries.
Also, get a big, secure folder where you can keep all your papers together in one place.
6. Consider making a report to police, even if CPS is already handling the case. Pursue the criminal case to the maximum extent possible.
This advice may seem a little off track. After all, you’ve already got more than you can handle with the CPS case. So why consider opening up another case with police?
But making a report to police, either of the child abuse or of domestic violence against you, or both, may be more help to you in your CPS case than anything else you can do. Our best advice is that you make a police report on the perpetrator’s abuse of the child, as well as a separate police report on any of the violence or threats of violence the perpetrator has committed against you. A strong criminal case against the abuser can often protect you against CPS in a number of ways.
* The existence of a criminal case against the perpetrator usually forces CPS to work in coordination with the criminal justice team. Since the criminal justice system only goes after the abuser and never goes after the non-offending parent, CPS is often forced to work more in that vein, too, and tends to move away from treating you, the non-offending parent, as a bad parent.
* Police and prosecutors (the criminal justice team) usually aim to protect the child from contact with the perpetrator. This often puts a damper on any attempts by CPS to mandate mediations, family conferencing, and family reunification with the perpetrator. And, of course, if the abuser is incarcerated by the criminal system, that further curtails CPS attempts to reunify the child with the perpetrator.
* Police and prosecutors will be much more rigorous than CPS in developing evidence against the abuser. Moreover, the evidence developed by police will be tightly focused on the abusive acts. By highlighting the perpetrator’s violent criminal behavior, the evidence developed by police exposes the risky and threatening situation you were in as the child’s mother, and the limited options you had for dealing with the situation. As such, the evidence developed by police can often be your best evidence for defending yourself from CPS accusations.
* The criminal justice system packs more weight and power than CPS. So the criminal justice usually calls the shots at critical junctures in the handling of the case.
The existence of a criminal case against the perpetrator doesn’t guarantee that CPS will stop targeting you, the non-offending parent. But at the very least, it usually does tend to shift the overall blame more onto the perpetrator where it should be. And in many cases the existence of a criminal case may shift things enough to keep the CPS/juvenile court system from taking your child from you.
NOTE: You may have to push a little to get police to take the report, particularly if CPS is already involved in the case. But if a family member has been violent with you or your child, police cannot refuse to take a report. And if you run into an officer who does refuse to take a report, go immediately over that officer’s head to the sergeant or to the head of the department’s family violence unit.
If you still have trouble getting police to take your case seriously, there are a number of resources in our Online Handbook Advocating for Women in the Criminal Justice System
7. Know the purpose of and prepare ahead of time for all meetings with CPS workers, mediators, evaluators. Read and reread everything that your CPS worker has given you.
Most of the time when mothers call us frantic about their CPS case, they are often unable to explain the status of the legal proceedings. And they often don’t know the purpose of the next meeting or court hearing. This is not their fault. The CPS system is complex. And most CPS workers do not consider it their job to keep you informed. Unfortunately, aside from an attorney who may be assigned to your case when you go to court, there is no one in the CPS/juvenile court system who’s job it is to act as your advocate. And, as will be discussed in more detail later, even if you have been assigned an attorney by the juvenile court, these attorneys are notorious for ignoring their clients needs.
It isn’t fair and it isn’t just. But you have to take on the responsibility of keeping yourself informed as to exactly what’s happening in your case.
You need to know the purpose of each meeting, evaluation, and each court hearing before you attend. What is the issue that’s going to be decided? What is the CPS position on this issue? Do I need to defend myself against the CPS position? How do I need to defend myself? You can’t prepare effectively without having that information.
Once you get in the habit of keeping yourself informed about the step-by-step status of your child’s case, much of your anxiety and panic will be alleviated.
8. Never go alone to meet with CPS, to go to Juvenile Court, or to meet with your attorney.
Having a smart, kind friend at your side makes you strong in so many ways. It lets the authorities know someone else is watching and cares about you. A friend at your side protects you from feeling intimidated, reminds you of questions you wanted to ask, helps you remember things that were said. Having a friend at your side discourages officials from mistreating you. Makes you feel stronger. Gives you someone to share the experience with before, during, and after. Makes you feel not so all alone.
So always try to have a friend at your side at all your encounters with the CPS/juvenile court system. Don’t wait until the last minute to make arrangements. Once you’ve found someone who will accompany you, inform your friend about the purpose of the meeting or hearing. Ask your friend if she or he would be willing to read some of the relevant documents. Talk with your friend about what role you would like her to play in meetings and hearings. Try to meet with your friend and go to the meeting or hearing together, rather than meeting up at the location. Treat your friend like gold. Say ‘thank you’ again and again.
9. Put it in writing! Put it in writing! Put it in writing! Don’t let your words get misrepresented, twisted, or denied. To the greatest extent possible, communicate with the CPS/juvenile court system in writing. In addition, tape record conversations whenever possible.
One of the most exasperating thing women experience going through the CPS system is having their words misrepresented, twisted, or denied. So to the greatest extent possible, communicate with CPS in writing.
For tips on putting together short, quick, effective written communication go to How To Write an Effective Letter to Make the System Work.
When dealing with the CPS system,
* Write short notes summarizing your understanding of conversations you’ve had from CPS. Notes such as the example that follows make it virtually impossible for the CPS worker to later deny they said. Because, if there was a misunderstanding, the worker should have cleared it up immediately after receiving the note. Regularly following up on phone calls and meetings with such notes also establishes a recorded time line of events. And, perhaps, most important of all, these notes serve to put the CPS system on notice that there’s no room for slippery slights of hand when dealing with you. All this, while at the same time, these notes convey a professional, cooperative tone. So write a lot of notes. And don’t forget to keep copies!
Dear Ms. Janson,
I’m sending this note just to let you know what I understood from our phone conversation of June 2, 2007. I understood that you have given me permission to pick my child up from the group home and take my child to the pediatrician of my choice to remedy the rash on my child’s back. Thank you,
* Always voice any complaints you may have in a one page letter that follows the format outlined on this page How To Write an Effective Letter to Make the System Work. Even though these complaint letters take a little more time to put together, this form is highly effective in obtaining quick remedy to your complaint.
* Always put your requests in writing. These written requests can be as simple as the note above for simple requests, or may call for a longer one page letter as suggested for the complaints.
* Similar to your requests, it’s always best to put your conditions and assertions of your rights into letter form.
And once more for quality control: Always keep copies, and keep all your copies in a safe place.
10. Follow all court orders to the letter. Many court orders given you in a CPS case will seem completely unjust. Many of these orders are, in fact, unjust, and, worse, many are often contrary to the well being and safety of you and your child. But you must follow these orders to the letter, even as you fight to do everything you can to get these orders changed.
There’s nothing that upsets the court more than someone who breaks a court order. Even child abuse doesn’t seem to upset officials as much as what they view as contempt for their court orders. So read and know what’s written in the court order and obey it to the letter. The last thing you want is for the system to retaliate against you and take your child just because you failed to comply with a court order to attend this or that program. So keep in mind that it can happen just as easily as that. And obey all court orders to the letter.
Another all too common occurrence you should watch out for is this. A CPS worker may tell you verbally that you don’t have to do this or that part of what’s written in the service plan which has been approved by the judge. Whatever you do, do not take the social worker at his or her word. Before you even think of changing any aspect of your compliance with the court orders or written service plans, insist that the social worker put any and all changes in writing! And that the social worker sign and date the statement. And that you have at least one copy of that signed statement in your hands. If the social worker fails to put the change in writing, continue to comply with the order and service plan as it is written.
And if a social worker, or any other member of the CPS system, tells you to do one thing that’s different from what’s in the written order, you should write up a dated, signed note of your own. Address it to the judge or the head of social services. Explain briefly that your social worker told you to do x, but that you know you are obligated to follow the written order until such time as that order is changed in writing.
Remember, what’s written in black and white is what counts. It’s worth repeating. Don’t get fooled or misled by something a social worker says verbally one day, and then forgets they ever said it the next. Don’t let abusers, evaluators, mediators, or anyone else influence you verbally into going against what’s written in black and white. Even something as seemingly minor as altering a visitation schedule can and likely will be held against you in court. Get it in writing! Get it in writing! Get it in writing!
Obey all written court orders as they are written!
11. Keep being your child’s mother. If CPS has detained your child, remember, you are still your child’s mother, and your child needs your mothering more than ever. Don’t violate any court orders. But within the constraints of those court orders, do all that you can to keep being your child’s mother. Be creative! Give thought ahead of time how to make the most of phone calls and visitations.
C. Tips for getting the best possible representation from your court appointed attorney.
If you’ve been appointed an attorney by the juvenile court, don’t trust that your attorney will properly prepare and present your case.
Many, many, many mothers wrongly lose their children to CPS, and the children wrongly lose their mothers, simply because the attorneys assigned to represent the non-offending parents often do little or nothing on behalf of their clients.
No one in any situation can sit back and trust that their attorney will effectively fight for their case. You have to partner with your attorney. You need to understand your case, participate in preparing your case, and most important of all, you have to watchdog your attorney.
But when you are the non-offending parent who has been assigned an attorney by the juvenile court in the CPS case, you need to multiply this advice by a factor of a thousand. As a rule, attorneys assigned to represent you in a CPS case are attorneys at their worst. They frequently fail to prepare, fail to fight back, fail to return phone calls, fail to meet with their clients, and often fail to know even the basic facts of the case. As a result, these attorneys frequently end up abandoning their clients to the most blatant abuses of CPS/juvenile court system.
Don’t let this happen to you. In order to effectively deal with an attorney assigned to represent you in a CPS/juvenile court case, it’s helpful to first understand why the CPS/juvenile court system brings out the worst in so many attorneys.
These attorneys usually have a very high volume caseload of clients who are in intense emotional pain and stress. Any discussion the attorney attempts to have with the clients is usually laced with the mother’s agony and desperation. With scores of these desperation cases to handle every day, many attorneys unfortunately take the easy route and shut the clients out. Many don’t return phone calls, don’t meet with you to prepare the case, and often don’t even meet with their clients before critical court hearings. This naturally increases the clients’ desperation, which increases the attorney’s effort to barricade against communicating with the clients, which leads to very bad lawyering for the mothers who need it most.
The attorneys assigned to these cases know that their clients are among the most powerless and voiceless in society; poor women who are caught in the most dire circumstances. Right from the start, most of these attorneys can’t even begin to imagine the kinds of circumstances their clients are going through. Nor are they likely to dig into the situation sufficiently (if at all) to unravel the complexities in search of the truth. Furthermore, these attorneys know their clients do not have the resources, (neither the time, money, nor standing) to mount a case of lawyer misconduct, no matter how bad a job the lawyers do.
Family and juvenile law have very low status in the legal profession. Many attorneys assigned to cases like yours are not really there as a first choice. They’re being rotated through the job. Or they took the job as a holding station while they look for better positions elsewhere. Or they simply need the easy money of a court assignment. Furthermore, they know that given the vague and flimsy legal standards of family and juvenile law, it’s difficult to construct an effective defense against whatever claims or accusations CPS puts forth. So, they figure, why put up a fight?
The whole CPS/juvenile court system operates in secret. No one is watching. Nothing is on the public record. Add to this the absence of rigorous standards and the attorneys know that no one in the system, including themselves, is likely to be held accountable for legal malpractice.
Most of these attorneys are given their assignments at the pleasure of the court. The attorneys know that if they smoothly go along with CPS and court rulings without raising a fuss, the court will continue to assign them cases. On the other hand, if they regularly battle with CPS and take up court time fighting and objecting on behalf of their clients’ rights, they know the chances are slim that the court will keep them around.
When you look at all these factors in sum, you can easily see why the attorney you’re assigned in the juvenile court system is so prone to doing a lousy job representing your interests. Fortunately, there are some things you can do that may perk up your attorney to a better level of performance on your behalf.
* Tips to increase the chances your attorney will fight your case effectively:
* Know what attorneys like. Most attorneys like to go into court armed with solid evidence. They like to look good in court, to win smartly, and to do all of the foregoing with the minimal of effort. Even better, they like to do so with no effort at all. What this means for you is that if you can arm your attorney with solid evidence that smartly answers the CPS case against you, and if you can do so by making the most minimal demand on the attorney’s time, you stand a good chance of getting your attorney to bat hard for you in court.
* Be informed and be prepared. Know the written accusations against you. Know the exact purpose of the upcoming court hearing (i.e. what question is the upcoming hearing meant to resolve.) Then prepare yourself before you meet or communicate with your attorney, including before any phone conversations with your attorney. Make a brief set of notes to yourself on the main questions you want to ask, and the main points you want to communicate. Try to put these points in as condensed a form as possible so you can refer to them and read them at a glance.
* In all your communications with your attorney, stick to the legal issue(s) at hand. This can be very difficult given the heart wrenching emotions of your situation. And it can be near unbearable to realize that your attorney isn’t out there trying to move heaven and earth to make sure you don’t lose your child to CPS. But it’s very unlikely your attorney is going to be moved by your pain. If you vent your pain onto your attorney, it’s much more likely you’ll drive the attorney away rather than serving to draw the attorney into your cause.
Keep reminding yourself that the best way to keep CPS from taking your child is to get your attorney to fight effectively for you in court, and the best way to get your attorney to fight effectively for you is to stick to the legal issue at hand.
One way to help yourself do this is to imagine that you’ll only have five minutes with your attorney. Then in the days leading up to your appointment with your attorney, ask yourself, what are the most important questions and points I need to communicate in those five minutes. This should help you get very focused and clear about what you want to say and ask. As mentioned above, write these points down in a brief set of notes to yourself. Have these notes in your hand for easy reference at a glance when you meet or talk with your attorney.
* Prepare a one page written brief for your attorney. This one page brief should be a tight summary, ~ a point by point list ~, of the main points of information, evidence, and witnesses your attorney needs in order to successfully fight the upcoming legal issue at hand. In other words, in your thinking and preparation, you be the lawyer arguing your case.
The end product you give your attorney should all fit on one, or maximum two, page(s) . Remember, these attorneys are buried in these cases. They will read one sheet of paper. They will appreciate one sheet of paper. But if you hand your attorney a fist full of papers, it’s likely the attorney won’t even read the first page. If there are supporting documents you think your attorney should have, briefly describe the documents you have on your one page brief. Indicate that you’ve attached a copy, or that you’ll produce the documents when needed.
If you have additional information you could not fit on the one page, say exactly that as your last point on the page. For example, write something like, “In addition to the above, I have two additional witnesses who can attest to the bruises on my child from a year ago. I have a copy of my temporary restraining order petition from that time (in which I noted the threats of violence against me). Also, I can obtain a letter from the counselor I was seeing at that time who can attest to my fears for myself and my child.”
Write your information out in points (the same as this text), with the most important points at the top. Don’t forget to put your name, your phone number(s), the case number, and the date – and your attorney’s name – all clearly at the top of the page.
* Ask your attorney directly what he or she is going to argue and ask for in court. Don’t be shy about this. It is completely appropriate to the attorney/client relationship for you to be very specific in asking your attorney how and what they are going to argue on your behalf in court. It is also completely appropriate, in fact it is the core of the attorney/client relationship, that you tell your attorney in detail, how you want your attorney to represent you.
So speak up. Ask: “What evidence are you going to present in defense of the CPS accusation that I should have known my husband was abusing his stepdaughter?” “Are you going to present the letter from the counselor?” “Are you going to present the police reports of domestic violence from a year ago?” “Are you going to present the statement from my daughter’s friend?”
“What are you going to do if the judge will not return custody to me?” “I want you to ask for increased visitation.” “I want you to argue forcefully against CPS telling me to CO-counsel with my husband.” “I want you to argue against this based on the history of domestic violence.” etc.
Take notes on your attorney’s answers and responses to these questions. It may be that some of your requests are not legally viable for a particular hearing. But your attorney should give you full, accurate, and reasonable explanations if that’s the case. But bottom line, your attorney’s job is to represent your interests court.
* Always have extra copies of the brief for your attorney, and a set of notes for yourself, when you go to court. The sad fact is that even if you’ve given a copy of this one sheet briefing to your attorney a week before the hearing, there’s still a real chance the attorney will not have read it. So bring copies to court. Once at the courthouse, you can be pretty certain that your attorney will read it, or reread it, as he or she sits there in the courtroom or out in the hallway as they wait for the case to be called.
Waiting for a case to be called at court is often a very good time to catch your attorney’s attention to exchange last minute thoughts anyway because they’re pinned in place with nothing particular to do. But before you tap your attorney on the shoulder, as always, take a minute to jot down your points and questions.
The reason it’s so important that you have a set of notes for yourself when you go to court is because it’s so easy to forget even the most important points when you’re nervous and upset. The courtroom atmosphere can be very intimidating, chaotic, and confusing. So bring your written notes to yourself. Bring a copy of your notes to your attorney.
* Remember: Bring a smart, supportive friend with you to meetings with the attorney and to court hearings. And bring your notebook, too, so you can write down new points and questions that occur to you during the court proceeding.
* If, despite all of the above, your attorney fails you in court, does not present the evidence on your side, misrepresents your side, doesn’t object to lies and false accusations against you, etc., you have every right to speak up for yourself, either immediately or later. But it’s best to speak up immediately!
In court, once your case is called, you will be seated right next to your attorney. The reason you’re seated next to your attorney is because in order for you to have proper representation in court you must be able to communicate with your attorney as events unfold in court.
Do not hesitate to talk to your attorney during your court hearing! Do not hesitate to talk to your attorney even if it means the whole court has to stop and wait while you confer with your attorney. Do not feel pressured out of exercising this critical right to stop everything while you talk with your attorney, even if all you need to do is to ask your attorney the meaning of one action or another.
But if you see that your attorney is failing to present evidence he or she said they would present, or failing to accurately represent your position, it is absolutely essential that you turn to your attorney and say, “I need to confer with you for a minute.” When you do that, your attorney should then turn to the judge and say, “Your Honor, I would like to take a moment to confer with my client.” This is nothing unusual. It happens all the time in court that proceedings are stopped so attorneys and clients can take a minute or two to confer. So don’t be shy or embarrassed at all about turning to communicate with your attorney as many times as you feel you need to throughout the court hearing on your case. Remember, you are fighting to save your relationship with your child. And you have a right to proper, accurate, and complete legal representation.
If your attorney does not respond to you, if your attorney just rolls over your request and acts like he or she doesn’t hear you, you, yourself, have a right to speak up directly to the judge. It can be very hard to do this in open court, but do it. “Your honor, I need a minute to confer with my attorney.” This will work. The judge will stop everything and give you time to talk with your attorney, and more than likely, the judge will also give your attorney a dirty look. A look like, ‘why on earth did your client have to go through me to get to you?’
* Yes, you have the right to fire your attorney, even if your attorney is court appointed. If it is clear to you that your attorney is not prepared or not willing to properly represent your side of the case, you have a right to fire your attorney. Naturally, you should be sure this is what you need to do before you do it, since it will postpone court hearings and require that you be assigned a new attorney.
However, if your attorney has refused to meet with you, or if your attorney has not prepared, or is hostile to your case, or for any other reason, you feel your attorney is going to fail you in court, firing your attorney may be the best thing you can do to protect your rights.
If you’re going to fire your attorney, it’s a good idea to write a brief one paragraph statement to your attorney telling the attorney that he or she is fired. Fax this to your attorney, and bring a copy of the letter with you to court. When you go into court, be prepared to speak up to the judge when your case is called, and to give a copy of the letter to the judge. Don’t feel embarrassed or shy about doing this either. This is not unusual. Many clients fire their attorneys. Many court hearings of all kinds are put over to another date so that clients have time to find a new attorney or to be assigned a new attorney. Many attorneys have lived through the experience of being fired. They know how to save face in these situations. Your attorney will not have a heart attack when you announce it in open court. And the judge won’t be shocked either. They’ve all been through it before.
So speak up and exercise your rights. You deserve proper legal representation, especially when it comes to saving your relationship with your child.