On September 27, 2018,  Michelle Burrell,  the Managing Attorney for the Family Defense Practice at Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem presented testimony at the hearing of the Commission on Parental Legal Representation at the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, First Judicial Department. The text and video of her testimony is below:

Good afternoon to the panel,

It is clear from the testimony of my colleagues that it is integral to the quality of our statewide parent representation that attorneys and advocates are present both pre-filing, as well as, at the initial intake stages.  But for the continued quality of parent representation throughout the duration of the case and to ensure the best outcomes for the families we serve across the state, access to resources that enhance our ability to represent our clients is of the utmost importance. My name is Michelle Burrell and I am the Managing Attorney of the Family Defense Practice at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem and the practice I manage serves the families of Northern Manhattan.  This morning/afternoon I want to talk a little about the resources available to attorneys throughout the pendency of an abuse and neglect case.

Last week, as I was about to settle into my lunch, one of the attorneys on my team came into my office and sat on my couch.  She was a little distressed as a newer attorney and wanted to strategize ways to balance all of the work she was doing. She was litigating emergency hearings for the return of children and prepping meticulously for fact-finding hearings.  She was filing objections to records for trial, and she was filing Orders to Show Cause to move children into kinship care and to expand visitation. She was also having regular communication with her clients. She was stretching herself thin and wanted support in how to balance it all.  

Compounding this juggling act, for this attorney (and for many of our attorneys and advocates) is the reality of the racism and classism that is apparent by just walking into the Family Court building on any given day.  As an attorney of color and a resident of the Harlem community, I would be remiss not to mention the collective and communal trauma that permeates the psyche of the advocate community when witnessing the racial disproportionalities on a daily basis.  It affects everything that we do.

But the reason I share this story is to say that the ongoing practice of working on an abuse and neglect case for a caseload of clients is arduous and challenging.  It is important to know, however, that we do not file motions and ask for hearings to be defiant or difficult! We are not seeking to clog up the court system with frivolous motions and waste the time of our colleagues and the court.  Much to the contrary, we are working to quickly restore families, advance cases where children have lingered in foster care for too long and ensure the safety of children – because we do not see children in isolation, we see them as a being part of a family and ultimately the part of a larger community.  And to push back against the status quo is not easy work.

Now the attorney that came into my office is phenomenal and she is already working through the stresses of the job and has a number of supports present in our office, but we can always do better and the types of support that she has are not present across the state.  Now we have been fortunate to receive funding that allows us to employ many attorneys, attorney supervisors, social workers, social work supervisors, parent advocates and paralegals at NDS, but our model can still be improved. And if this commission is looking to improve the quality of parent

representation across the state, additional resources for attorneys and out of court advocates has to be a big part of the equation (and my colleague will speak more on the importance of maintaining reasonable caseloads for attorneys) but there are other resources necessary as well.

Across the state, there must be better access to expert testimony from a variety of professional fields that can keep the court up-to-date on all of the latest scientific advances in theory.  And that theory includes updated scientific theory around drug and alcohol abuse, the use of psychotropic medications for parents and children, parenting with mental illness, domestic violence and non-accidental trauma to children.  And we need the judiciary to be more malleable and willing to challenge commonly held beliefs so that we aren’t applying archaic standards of what constitutes a safe environment for families.

In order to ensure the quality of parent representation across the state, parent attorneys need more access to resources that can support thriving appellate practices.  While I can appreciate the pressure and time constraints of the judiciary, with many cases and not enough time to decide them, that does not always create the best atmosphere for thoughtful decision-making.  And when erroneous decisions are made, the attorneys at my office are routinely seeking interlocutory appeals that can change the trajectory of a case.

Nowhere was this more apparent as in the case of our client who had a particularly low IQ and was seen by ACS as unable to parent just because of that fact only.  Upon the application of the NDS attorney working on her case, and in conjunction with the significant work of the social worker from our office in assisting our client over the course of the hearing to get into mental health services (including therapy and medication management), an emergency hearing was requested for our client with suggestions as to many ways that ACS could support safe reunification.  At the conclusion of the hearing, our application was denied. We then went to the appellate division and the appellate judge was very displeased that services had not even been considered as a way to mitigate the risk. The appellate judge stayed the order and intensive 6-hour a day homemaking and preventive services were put in place. Our client is safely home with her child today.

It is clear that supporting attorneys and advocates throughout the pendency of a case is integral to ensuring quality representation of parents. Adding additional resources to counties across the state for more social work staff, more attorneys, more resources to adequately litigate cases effectively (in the trial courts and in the appellate courts) will provide ultimately provide the best framework for the court to ensure that families are reunified, children are kept safe and that the court has the best information possible to make decisions that affect our communities.