Brie: It's What's For Breakfast

Just another weblog

One of My Old Cases


A few people have asked me to tell “war stories” from my law practice. Obviously I can’t violate any client confidentialities, but I can talk about my cases.

I have worked in the juvenile justice system for over 18 years now. I’ve worked as a lawyer for abused and neglected children, I’ve represented the parents who wanted to get custody of those children back from the state’s foster care system, I’ve represented the young juvenile delinquents who have charges ranging from rape to truancy, I’ve represented parents who were at their wit’s end and needed to institutionalize their children so that the children’s behavior could be addressed in a therapeutic setting. I’ve worked with the worst of the worst when it comes to child rearing.

I’ll tell you about the one that was the beginning of the end for me. I was already pretty burned out on child abuse cases by the time this client came along, but this case was the tipping point for me not wanting to take any other clients like this one on. It’s not a current case. It’s one I had several years ago. It is over, at least as far as I’m concerned. I got disgusted with my client and I asked the judge to let me out of the case. Fortunately, the judge saw things my way.

My client’s name was Diane. She was a single mother of three. Her son Joey was 13 when he raped his 9 year old sister, Karen. It was believed that he molested his 4 year old sister, Jenna, but Jenna couldn’t describe what had happened well enough for authorities to determine what if anything had actually happened to her. The medical evidence was inconclusive.

No criminal charges were filed for several reasons. First was Joey’s age. At 13 he was on the young side of even juvenile culpability for criminal conduct. His emotional and mental immaturity made him even younger. When the facts surrounding his own sexual abuse came to light, the decision not to charge him was easy. Joey needed treatment for his own victimization as much as he needed treatment for perpetrating against his sisters.

Joey was taken out of the home and put in a special psychiatric facility for boys who are sexual offenders. Joey completed the program. He worked through his own issues of abuse and became able to articulate the situation which led him to act out with Karen and Jenna. All that remained was for him to have series of reconciliation sessions with his sisters, and start home visits to prepare the family for his transition back into the home. It was at this point, fourteen months after Joey went into residential treatment, that things fell apart.

Joey’s therapist asked for contact information for the girls’ therapist so that joint sessions could be held. Diane had no name to give him. More than a year had passed since the abuse, but Diane had never put her sexually abused daughters in counseling. In the interest of trying to help Joey go home, the residential treatment facility offered to work with the girls in a limited number of sessions.

At the first session, Karen refused to enter the room if Joey was there. When Joey was brought into the room where Karen was, she became hysterical. The therapist separated the children and interviewed Karen separately. The therapist learned from Karen that neither of the girls was going to school. Karen, who was now 11, was skipping classes to have sex with boys for money. Jenna, who was now 6, refused to go to school at all and had to be physically carried into the building kicking and screaming. When she would be put down she would run from the building, still screaming. Diane was exhausted from dealing with her daughters’ behaviors. She had given up requiring them to go to school. Some days the girls stayed home alone. Other days they would go to work with their mother at the fried chicken place in the mall. There was no place for the children to sit while their mother worked. Karen might read a book or draw, but 6-year-old Jenna was more outgoing. She would skip off “to look around” and on more than one occasion was returned to her mother by mall security because she was begging money from shoppers.

Before the second session, Joey’s treatment team concluded that there was no way he could go back home. There were just too many unresolved issues relating to the sexual misconduct and Diane seemed unable to handle basic parenting and discipline. No friends were willing to take Joey into their home, and there were no relatives. The only option was for Joey to go into foster care.

The facility reported the situation to the state child protective services agency. A case was opened in juvenile court. Because Diane faced losing custody of one of her children to the state, Arkansas law said she was entitled to the services of a lawyer. Just like in criminal cases, if she couldn’t afford a lawyer one would be appointed for her. The judge called and asked me to take the case.

I’m used to tough child sexual abuse cases. I can’t count the number of them I’ve had. Every single one was heartbreaking. In every single one there are children whose lives have become hell. In most of them at least one parent has to make a choice between victim and perpetrator. Often the mother is abused even more than the children are. But as similar as this case was to all the others, it was also radically different.

The socioeconomic status of the typical family I’m appointed to represent usually means that the mother had her first child before reaching the age of 18, was raised in poverty by a single parent, has no friends or family in a supportive network to help her, is chronically unemployed and may be surviving on social security or welfare payments, knows very little about basic personal hygiene or housecleaning, and probably drifts from man to abusive man to make ends meet, having a child or two with each.

Diane had a college degree. Her first child was born when she was in her mid-20’s. Her parents, who were deceased, had been comfortably middle class. Her father had been a Methodist minister. She had one brother who was much older and from whom she was estranged. He was an accountant in another state. Diane was a manager at a fast food restaurant. She and the children were always clean and neat. She did not have a boyfriend. She had been divorced for about three years. Her ex-husband was the father of all three children. The social services workers had no complaints about the condition of her home.

How had such a woman come to this? Abuse knows no social or economic constraints, but people with Diane’s socioeconomic history generally take advantage of resources and social networks. Diane had not.

More of the story was revealed in Joey and Karen’s testimony and in the therapy sessions that followed. The children’s father had been arrested for molesting a niece and nephew about the time Diane had became pregnant with Jenna. She had never worked, so Diane had no idea how to support herself and two children, especially with a third on the way. When her husband pled guilty and went to jail, another man came to her rescue. He moved into her home. Diane had apparently installed him as a substitute for her absent husband. Diane was bedridden in the final stage of her pregnancy with Jenna. Her boyfriend found sexual gratification with her children, occasionally in the same bed where Diane was. Diane said she didn’t remember that actually happening, but if the children said it happened then it was probably true. I was astounded. If someone had molested my kid in the same bed I was in, I think I’d damn sure remember it. Coincidentally, the boyfriend vaporized when Joey’s sexual misconduct came to the attention of the authorities.

After I came on board, the case went from bad to worse.

Both girls were admitted into acute care residential treatment facilities – read: psychiatric hospitals – and both were eventually returned there for long term care lasting several months. Diane never understood that the children needed to be told no. If one of her children wanted to do something, the answer was always yes. She had no respect from them and no control over them. She also had no empathy with them or even a basic understanding of why they behaved the way they did.

The kicker came when Diane found herself another man. A man from Mexico was hired at the fast food restaurant. Although he did not speak English and Diane did not speak Spanish, they evidently found a way to communicate in the international language of love. Once again, Diane allowed a man to move into her home.

The judge ordered Diane to move the man out. No men were to be around the girls at all when they were home, and this included Diane’s boyfriend. Diane protested with the same outraged mantra all women use in such situations: “You’re telling me I can’t have a life of my own?” Certainly she could. But not if she wanted her children to be at home with her.

Diane complained bitterly about the fact that her boyfriend couldn’t be around her daughters. At this point the girls were coming home only for weekend passes from their residential treatment, but the hospital believed the girls had reached maximum therapeutic benefit (in other words, Medicaid was refusing to pay for a longer stay) and they needed to be released.

“You have to choose,” I told her. “Which is more important, your children or some man whom you can’t even talk with?” While she struggled with that decision, she told me that the weekend before Jenna had thrown a fit because she wanted to keep riding her bicycle after dark one night. She said she just couldn’t do anything about that sort of misbehavior, and she expected Jenna would do the same thing the next time.

I was incredulous. “Who’s the adult?” I asked. The words were out of my mouth before I even thought about them.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, take the bike away from her. Ground her from it if she doesn’t mind when you tell her to come inside.”

“But she’ll get mad at me!”

“So? You’ll be setting a limit on her behavior. You’ll be giving her consequences. Diane, this is elementary parenting. Surely you can do this.”

“But when she gets upset she gets so angry.”

“Send her to her room and make her stay there until she calms down, then.”

“What if she won’t stay there?”

“Turn her around and walk her back, sit her on the bed, walk out, and close the door. Take control. This is what the therapists and the judge have been telling you to do. It’s what parents have to do.”

“Maybe I can get Pedro to do that.”

“No, Diane, not only is he unable to communicate with the children effectively, you can’t have him there. And even once he is allowed there you have to do the parenting, not him. You have to start parenting your kids yourself.”

“Are saying I’m not a good parent?” She was seriously shocked. I heard it in her voice.

“Yes,” I answered. That’s exactly what I’m saying. It’s also what child protective services, the court, and the therapists have been telling you.”

“I don’t believe you just said that to me,” she said, stunned. Sadly, she wasn’t kidding.

The next day she called to let me know that Pedro was staying so the girls would need to go live in a foster home. She had made her choice.

I was burned out on clients like Diane. I’d had all I could take. I just didn’t care anymore about trying to put their families back together. I had other parents who cared just as little for their children’s welfare, but rarely had one displayed that indifference more bluntly. I stopped taking abuse cases.

I wound up my last child abuse case about the time I started blogging here on Yahoo 360. I don’t want to take any more. I’ve turned down judges who have called asking me to take cases. I have no heart for it any more.

I don’t know why Diane and her kids were on my mind today. Sometimes, though, I think of some of the things that happened in those child abuse cases and I am still amazed that such things actually happened. It amazes me how a parent can bring a life into the world and then be so completely uninterested in its development.

April 19, 2007 - Posted by | Children, Lawyer

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