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Minor’s Counsel / Child Advocate

Orange County Minor’s Counsel Attorney

In the State of California, a private family attorney may be appointed to represent a minor in family law cases involving child abuse, child neglect, drug related cases, high conflict divorces and other cases the court deems appropriate. Minor’s Counsel only represents the child and not the parents.

A Minor’s Counsel Attorney will meet with a the child to attempt to help them identify any issues that could be problematic.  A large part of a minor’s counsel job is to help minors communicate all of the important information to the attorney, and direct the findings to the court. We believe that children are harmed by separations, even short ones, from the family they feel safe with. If there are viable concerns, we do all we can do to help resolve those issues to enable the parent to care for the children themselves. Click here for the 2020 California Rules of Court; Appointment of counsel to represent a child in family law proceedings.

A common type of case

This mother is 26 years old. Her children are four and two. She is single and works as a waitress in a high priced coffee shop. She is also getting help such as Medicaid and Food Stamps because she can’t make enough to pay all of her expenses. The father of her children has been AWOL for two years, since just when the baby was born. She has no idea where he is, and although she lived with him for five years, she was never married to him. She lives in the “HUD” (Housing and Urban Development, or “section 8” federal housing subsidy program) apartments in town, and has family here, but her mother is an alcoholic, and her grandmother is suffering from crippling arthritis. She has one brother who is in the Army.

Last week, her four year old was learning to ride her new bicycle. It has training wheels, and is only a tiny one, made especially for her age group. She was doing fairly well and Mom let go of the bike for a second. The child rode well, but failed to stop at the end of the sidewalk, and crashed off the curb, getting a bruise on her cheek, and some scrapes on her hands. The next day she attended her Head Start class, and when the teacher asked her what happened to her cheek, she told the teacher that Mom pushed her and she crashed. Without further questions, the teacher called Child Protective Services (CPS) to report a possible abuse. This happens often. Teachers are legally mandated to report any suspicion of abuse. However, they are trained about how to recognize the “red flags” by CPS. CPS has the philosophy that all questions should be referred to them, that since they are the professionals, they should determine if there is reason to pursue an investigation. Teachers and other mandated reporters are taught by CPS about how and when to report suspected abuse or neglect. Unfortunately, they are also taught that they should just report any concern, and let the CPS decide what is or is not “founded” neglect or abuse. If all were utopian within the system, this would be a fine arrangement. Unfortunately, things are not always utopian, and often, a worker who honestly doesn’t have the time to investigate thoroughly, chooses removal as the “safe” choice. The part of this picture which often is either denied or ignored is that in a situation where removal of the child was not absolutely the only answer to insure the safety of the child, the removal itself becomes the abuse and emotional trauma which we, the people, intended for our laws to prevent.

The Report

Teachers are routinely told that if they fail to report some concern or suspicion, and later, the child is harmed in the parental care, the teacher may be found culpable for failing to make the report. Of course, the teacher isn’t told that there is no record of any teacher ever being fired or charged for failing to report serious abuse or neglect of a child. Teachers are very “tuned in” to their students in normal classroom contact, yet they are discouraged from relying on their own instincts and knowledge of the child and his family situation. Instead, they are intimidated to believe that they have no choice but to report any slight concern, and allow the CPS ”experts” to make the evaluation. In this case, the teacher could have waited to talk to the mother when the child was picked up from school, or could have called the mother at home, and the misunderstanding would have been clear immediately. Sadly, teachers are taught not to ask questions or investigate for themselves. They are told that they don’t have the specialized training to “see through” false excuses for injuries, and that they aren’t trained to spot drug abuse signs, and a host of other reasons. They are told that they just have to call a report in to the local CPS office, and let the professionals assess the home situation. In theory, that is a good plan. Sadly, government theories rarely really work!

Perverse Federal Funding Incentives

More and more often, we are seeing cases in which the CPS doesn’t respond responsibly, the worker doesn’t do an honest and complete job of investigating a report. The funding and attending regulations coming from the Federal Child Welfare programs are heavily weighted on the provision of monies for foster care and adoption subsidies. The family preservation money, the funds with which a social worker can help provide services to strengthen the family and support them to allow them to remain together, “in tact”, are miniscule by comparison. In 2004, while nearly $5 Billion (with a “B”) dollars was earmarked for foster care and adoption subsidies, only about $3 Million (with an “M”) was spent on preserving and supporting families. It might interest someone who reads this that those dollars are coming from Social Security Funds, and that the national average cost to maintain a child in foster care for one month, if he has no serious disability, is about $3000. In most cases, if we had only paid the electric bill, or helped fix the mother’s car, or helped pay for child care while she worked, we could have helped the family stay together, saved the child tremendous trauma, and spent about 1/10th of the money we spent by removing the child and paying for foster care. The long range damage of the separation from family and parents will only be measured as these children become adults. The Children’s Bureau, a federal government website, estimates that as many as 2/3 of the child protection reports received result in a finding of minor neglect. We, the advocates who have been trying to help families insure that they are treated fairly, and that every possible effort is made to keep the children in their own home, are finding that most of those nearly 2 million children could have been helped by simply providing services to support and encourage the family cohesion. The statistics we are seeing regarding adults who were foster children indicate that they have all sorts of life long emotional problems and do not succeed easily. It is clear to us that foster care is not the answer, unless there is genuinely no other choice to protect the child. Unfortunately, children are removed for nearly no reason, and for “just in case” reasons. Despite the fact that the funding provided by the Federal Government to the States for child protection is clearly tied to the requirement that every state make reasonable efforts to provide services to avoid removals, the fact is that even the judges appear to be ignorant of the services available, and do not routinely require that social workers produce proof of the services offered and explain why they have failed. In our efforts to educate defense attorneys and other officials involved in the court process, we are regularly shocked to discover how little is truly known and understood about the mechanism of child protection by the people with the power and the duty to execute the programs.

Don’t blame the social worker

When a worker approaches a case where she has little time to evaluate, knows that the child MAY be in danger, her risk assessment tools (questionnaires in which nearly every parent can be construed as deficient, most of the answers are extremely subjective, and rely on the bias and predisposition of the worker) tell her that risk may exist, she faces a dilemma. She has little funding with which to monitor the situation. Often simply assigning a “parent aide” to stop by and check on things for a few weeks would suffice, but there is a staffing shortage in nearly every child protection office in the country. She may not have the access or the option to have an aide check in with the family. There is rarely money in the family preservation accounts for payment of child care or utility payments, or other help of that nature. The quick way to insure that the child stays safe, in the system estimation and instruction, is to remove the child to a foster home until an assessment and services can be provided. This is referred to as “err on the side of the child”, and is written into the Adoption and Safe Families Act as a mandate that the safety of the child remain paramount. When you realize the amount of news focused on workers who sent children back to abusive homes, or didn’t remove children who are later harmed, you see a huge motivation for a worker to “err on the side of the child”. Many times, the removal opens up access to funding which can then be used to offer services. Sadly, what happens next is one of those often-found government snafus called unintended consequences. When the funding streams motivate CPS to find neglect or abuse in nearly every call, it amounts to sentencing a child to intrusion and invasion of their lives and their families which can be devastating. That is what I see more every day: devastation caused not by neglect or abuse, or even by the poverty of their families, but by the agency paid to help families in crisis. The first obligation is to do no harm. Sadly, the harm done is sometimes not recognized for years after the intervention.

The Intervention

Mom walked to the front of her apartment building to meet the Head Start bus at 3pm, last Tuesday, as she did every day. Her child did not get off the bus. She asked the driver why. The driver didn’t know. In a panic, she ran to her apartment, and phoned Head Start. After several minutes on hold, a supervisor came on the line and told her that her child had been taken to the CPS offices to be interviewed about the bruises on her body, and that a social worker should be contacting her. Mom was horrified. She called the CPS office. It was getting late now, nearly 3:30. The CPS receptionist didn’t know of any child brought to the office, and had no idea who to contact to find out. Mom took the two year old and drove to the CPS office. There, she was treated as an invader. She was asking questions, and demanding to know where her child was. No one would tell her anything. They kept telling her to sit in the office and just wait while they found out what had happened.

Finally, an older woman came out and asked her to step into the office. Once inside, this woman explained that the four year old had told her teacher that Mom pushed her and she fell. A social worker had been called, and had gone to the school. The social worker stripped the child and examined her. She found several bruises, and the child told her that the ones on her leg were from Mom’s hands. They had come to believe that this child had been abused, and were concerned. They had decided to keep the child until a medical examination could be done, and further they would be taking her two year old for the same examination. This worker tried to present this as a helping hand, saying, “We understand you are single and face a lot of stress and two young kids are a lot of work. But if you have a problem with temper, you should let us help you get control of that.” The more the mother tried to explain, the more distant and irritated the social worker appeared to get, insisting that the mother was denying a problem, and that only admitting her problem would allow Social Services to help her. Mom kept insisting that she doesn’t even spank her children and doesn’t believe in physical discipline. She tried to tell this woman about the bicycle, and begged her to ask the child if the marks happened when she fell off her bike. The woman refused to “taint” the child’s “natural explanation”.

Soon, a younger social worker appeared, and Mom was informed that she would have to allow this worker to take the two year old to examine him. Mom tried to explain that the two year old was constantly falling, tussling with the four year old, and playing in the play yard. She said she couldn’t remember when he didn’t have a couple of bruises on his body. She insisted on being present for any examination, and asked that it be done by a doctor. She was refused. She was told that if she refused to allow the examination, her children could both be placed in a foster home until she had been evaluated. This scared her. She was told that if there were no signs of abuse, no particular types of bruises and marks that are common to abuse, she would only be asked to attend a class on parenting, and allow some visits from the case worker. She was scared, but agreed. That is the last time she saw her two year old, she last saw her four year old when she put the child on the Head Start bus that morning. It has now been over a week. The worker insisted that there were “suspicious red marks” on the buttocks and thighs of the two year old. That was all it took. Mom’s explanation that the car seat always leaves marks on his butt and legs, but they go away in a little while fell on deaf ears. They had their “case”, and as some wise man once said, “There is nothing more dangerous than a powerful person with a noble cause”.

Foster Care

Mom was informed that her children were being placed in a foster home for a couple of days, until they could determine if the bruises and marks were signs of abuse. She cried, she begged, she promised to do anything they asked. They only shook their heads as if they were offended at her tears. The worker assured her that as long as she co-operated, they would likely only be in care for “a couple of days”. The next day, Wednesday, when she called the social worker, she was told that the person was not in the office and would return her call. She called three times that day, and finally went to the office in the late afternoon, worried half out of her mind about her babies. The receptionist told her, “You can’t just hang around here. If you don’t have an appointment with someone, you will have to leave.” Mom tried to talk to her and explain that there had just been some terrible misunderstanding, and she only wanted to talk to the worker and try to find out when she could see her children. The woman frowned, made a phone call, and returned to inform her that the worker would not be back until morning, and that she would have to go now.

On day number two, Thursday, having slept only an hour or two since the night before they took her babies, Mom finally got a CPS worker to return her call. The worker told her that she needed to come to the office to talk to them. She arrived for her appointment, and was ushered to an office in the very center of what seemed like a compound. The worker who spoke to her before was there, and another older woman. They informed her that they had formulated the “safety plan” which they believed would help her to “gain control” and that as soon as she completed the plan, she would be allowed to regain full custody of her children. In the meanwhile, the children would be allowed to come home with her, if she signed and agreed to complete the “plan”, but would remain in the legal custody of the State. She would be required to allow visits from workers at any time, would have to comply with the plan agreement, and would have to sign releases for the agency to gain copies of all school, medical and mental health records of she and the children. All she would have to do is get a psychological evaluation, attend some parenting classes, an anger management class, and three months of therapy, and they would close the case. When she insisted that she had no need for these things, they clearly informed her that if she chose to refuse their “treatment”, they would petition the court for custody and extended foster care of her children, and gain a court order to force her to comply with the plan. The worker told her that sometimes these things could take as much as six months to resolve, and if her children ended up staying in the foster home for 12 of the next 15 months, they could be placed for adoption. Needless to say, Mom was terrified. Thankfully, she also kept her composure enough to ask to “sleep on it” and promised to contact the workers the following day. Before she left the office, she asked if she could at least see her children, she was sure they were upset by now at not being tucked in and taken care of by her. She was told that would depend on what she “decided”. As she reached the door, the younger worker handed her a packet of papers and told her to read them, and call if she needed to ask any questions. Contained in those papers was the summons to appear in court on Monday. The children were taken on Tuesday afternoon. Mom realized that they had no intention of allowing her to see or talk to her children until after Monday, unless she signed that “plan” they wanted. She was getting really scared. Her instincts were RIGHT! If this Mom had been intimidated into signing that safety plan, she would have sentenced herself and her children to a journey through absolute hell. Signing that paper would have been the same thing as signing an admission of guilt. Regardless of what anyone may tell you, the effect of that signature would have been to waive every single right she had to contest the safety plan, to have a voice in the determination of its contents, to prove her innocence, or be exonerated. It would have placed her on a registry of child abusers for life, and would have removed her right to fair hearing in court, and indentured her to the CPS interminably. Knowledge is power. My most important goal in advocacy is to educate parents about the truth of child protection interventions, the possible consequences of some agreements, and their rights, as well as their child’s rights, if they become involved in an intervention. Although no one wishes to obstruct a truly needy family’s access to programs and help, we are all concerned that parents who are not guilty are not forced into services which cause their children trauma, and which cost the government money which should be reserved for those who are in need of help.

The Decision

That night, Mom spent the entire night on the internet, researching child protection and parents’ rights websites. In her searches, she learned a little about how the system works, and what to expect. To her good fortune, she did get a fairly good education, and the legal terminology wasn’t totally impossible for her to decipher. She learned that she needed a small tape recorder, and that it is legal in her state to tape record any conversation to which you are a party. She learned that she should immediately get copies of all school, medical and Human Services Agency records related to her or her children, and she needed to get affidavits from any and all people who could testify to her parenting style and ability. She learned what her legal rights are in her state, and that she should write confirmation letters, stating her understanding of every conversation or event in her case. She started a journal notebook in which she wrote a short timeline sort of accounting of the events of the past two weeks, and then added the background of her life with the children’s father, the separation, and her work history, family composition, and names of doctors and other professionals who had contact with her children, including the hospital and obstetrician who delivered them both.

As she continued to search, she learned that she had a right to demand a “contested hearing” when she appeared before the judge on Monday, and that the court would have to appoint an attorney to represent her. She spent the day on Friday gathering the documents and records from every possible source, and putting together the notes from which she intended to speak in court on Monday. She phoned several other parents who listed phone numbers on websites offering help and support for parents who were facing this sort of situation. Through her conversations she learned even more about what to expect. Unlike most parents in her situation, instead of the psychologically paralyzing panic most suffer from, this Mother happened to think clearly enough to find help quickly. It may save her children.

The First Hearing in Court

This Mom went to court yesterday. When the judge read the allegations made against her, she stood up and asked to read a statement to the court. In a very organized fashion, she read off the events which led up to this removal of her children, and she especially stressed the threats with which the CPS worker attempted to coerce her to agree to the safety plan. She lodged a complaint with the court that the children had not been allowed to see their regular pediatrician, and that she had not been present when the babies were stripped and examined by social workers who are not medically trained. She asserted that this indignity was demeaning and frightening to her four year old especially, and that the resulting emotional damage might be years in surfacing. She requested that the court order the CPS to take both of her children to their own doctor for a full examination immediately, and that she be allowed to see a full copy of all records they had gathered about she and her children. She asked that the court set a date for a contested hearing, appoint counsel for her since she is indigent, and that the court order at least three two hour visits per week if the children were going to be kept in foster care. She asserted that there was no real reason to place her kids in a foster home, no proof of any abuse, and that she would think that simply having a parent aid visit every couple of days would insure the condition of the children would remain safe in their own home until her hearing. She requested that the judge order the department to make “reasonable efforts” to provide supervision and monitoring to allow the children to return to their home pending any decisions made at the contested hearing. The judge appeared to be a little taken aback. I can only tell you that I have spent days in this court, observing, and I can only imagine the shock in that judge’s heart when he encountered a parent who knew her rights and was not intimidated by his black robe. He refused to return the children until they have been examined by the family doctor, and until the contested hearing. But he did order CPS to make arrangements immediately to take the children to their own doctor and for this mother to have supervised visits every other day, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, for at least one hour, preferably two hours at each visit. He set the contested hearing date for one week from that day, next Monday. He ordered the mother to complete an application for appointed counsel, appointed a child advocate, and gave her the name and phone number of an attorney he would be appointing.

Conclusion:

If you have children and care about a child, you owe it to the child to study and know what your CHILD’S rights are in a similar situation, and to know before the knock on your door how to respond and protect your rights and the your child’s. What you do NOT know can easily destroy your family. If you don’t have a computer, just go to any library and set up a free email account on one of the free sites. Go to any search engine and type in “Minors Counseling” Or “Child Advocate”. You will be reading for days.

In California, Minor’s Counsel carries a lot of weight as they are a neutral voice for the child, Their role is to consider what is the child’s best interests, while not being bound by any emotions that often come with a divorce, child abuse, neglect often associated with contested child custody or divorce cases.

Pedrick Law Group provides its clients with comprehensive legal guidance, as well as the dedication and attention their case deserves. The firm’s goal is to not only help their clients, but also to guide them on how they can plan for the long term. If you believe your child need minors counsel due to your divorce, don’t wait any longer, contact us at (949) 388-8682 to talk to a lawyer today.

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