Handling a pro bono matter in Children’s Court can be personally rewarding. A case I handled involved a voluntary termination of parental rights and obtaining an appropriate guardianship for a little girl who had suffered horrible abuse. Kids Matter, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children in the Milwaukee County child welfare system, made the referral.
I write to encourage others to take on pro bono matters in the Children’s Court, not to recount the details of the case I handled. (Joe Forward presented the case details well in his June 18, 2014, InsideTrack article, “Pro Bono Attorney Helps Rescue an Abused Child, Clinic Guides Veterans: Volunteers Honored Next Week.”)
Here is what you should know about Children’s Court when you accept your first matter.
1) Get ready for an emotional ride. The Children’s Court deals with fundamental human rights. Do these parents get to raise this child? Would this child be better off with someone else? Who should care for a child who has been severely tormented and abused?
2) Decisions in the Children’s Court are based on the answer to this single question: What is in the best interest of the child? In the case on which I worked, every single person involved in the process had this principle in mind. This included the judge, the district attorney, the guardian ad litem, the parents (they were not the abusers), the court personnel, and my client, the proposed guardian. Keep the “best interest of the child” question in mind, and you will go a long way in understanding how the Children’s Court works.
My Children’s Court matter is the most important I have handled in my 27 years of practice.
3) You may be the best lawyer in the state, but that does not make you a Children’s Court lawyer. The people who regularly practice in Children’s Court know the law, the judges, the process, and each other. You probably don’t. Enter this process with humility. I did not even know where the Children’s Court was. (Hint: It is not in the Milwaukee County Courthouse.) If you do not act like a big-shot know-it-all, you will find plenty of people at Children’s Court to help you understand the law and the process. Jennifer Hastings and Susan Conwell of Kids Matter helped me greatly, but I learned from others, too, including Mary Mountin and Laura Habush, the attorneys for the father and mother; Cynthia Lepkowski, the guardian ad litem; and Libby Mueller, the district attorney.
4) Even though you may believe that you lack the qualifications to do this kind of work, it is highly likely you are more qualified than your otherwise unrepresented client.
My Children’s Court matter is the most important I have handled in my 27 years of practice. I was able to help my client obtain full legal custody and permanent placement of a young child who had been abused while in the care of the child welfare system. Cases like these are the ones that you tell your grandkids about. They give the most personal gratification. Take a case. You will be glad you did.
To learn how you can volunteer, visit the Pro Bono Directory.