Reuniting Familes: Lawyers Team Up With Social Workers

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When it comes to cases of child abuse, sympathy clearly goes first and foremost to the children. But the parents also need help. Even those who are vilified for terrible acts. There’s a little-talked-about world of lawyers who spend their days defending parents who have had their children taken away from them. WNYC’s Ailsa Chang explores how they fight to give parents a second chance.

For more information and to see photos visit the WNYC News Blog.

Lauren Shapiro has defended former prostitutes, drug addicts, schizophrenics, and parents living with their kids in cars. Some of the stories are disturbing. One mother choked her son and beat him unconscious with a broom. One father smashed a vase into his daughter’s head. Shapiro runs Brooklyn Family Defense Project. It’s a group of lawyers and social workers who fight for the rights of these parents to get their kids back. She remembers when she first told people she was starting an office to represent parents accused of abuse and neglect. "Some people said, 'Why would you do that?' And it’s hard to convey," Shapiro says.

She says she wanted to help the neediest people in the city. And to understand what moves her so much about those clients, she says you need to hear their stories.

When you walk into Family Court in Brooklyn, what you first see are parents who don’t trust the system to treat them fairly.

"That's not fair. They’re not giving me a chance right here, right now. Know what I mean? I’ll take the baby so she can see her little sister. They not giving me a chance," one mother says.

"Nobody’s not trying to work with me, and I’m trying my hardest to get my child back and my life and it seems like everybody’s, like, closing the doors on me," another mother says.

That’s what Alicia Rojas once thought too. Rojas is a petite woman with a wide smile, and she’s an example of how with the right help a parent almost everyone else has written off can start over. There was a time when she couldn’t go two days without getting high.

"I was in my room all the time. Where were my kids? I didn’t even care if they messed the house. I didn’t care. I would make a quick cup of soup and send them on their way," Rojas says.

Rojas got pregnant when she was 15. After her second child, her mom kicked her out of the house and Rojas bounced around homeless shelters for the next ten years. When she gave birth to her fifth child at the shelter, she tested positive for cocaine and the city placed her children in foster care. But she kept getting high, and treated rehab programs like a joke. Things started to change when she was assigned a lawyer from Brooklyn Family Defense Project. "I am thankful. I am grateful. Because I’ve seen a lot of people who don’t have as good a team as I’ve had an opportunity to work with," Rojas says.

When a parent like Rojas is accused of abuse or neglect by the city, the city gives her a lawyer, like a public defender for parents. That lawyer represents the parent in Family Court against the child welfare agency that removed her kids and against the lawyers for each of her children. Shapiro says her job is to remind judges that even parents who’ve made big mistakes can become good parents.

"What our role is in court is to try to show who this person really is, what their strengths are," Shapiro says.

It can be a lonely job. Marty Guggenheim is a professor at NYU Law School who’s defended parents for 40 years. "My good friend on the law school faculty literally told me a story of representing a guy who had cut up a body and was driving it around in the trunk of his car for four weeks before he was arrested, and he defended him in a murder case. And he said to me, with no intended irony, that he could never represent parents the way I do," Guggenheim says.

But Guggenheim says the job of parent defenders is more complicated than people think. Their single most important goal is keeping families together because that’s what helps kids most. Studies show children in foster care are more likely to commit crimes, develop mental health issues, and have problems in school. Shapiro’s office takes that research seriously. A parent who’s about to lose a child to foster care has the right to an emergency hearing within three days. Shapiro makes those hearings a top priority, even if it means covering for colleagues at the last minute so they can show up at those hearings. "I have this case at 11:30 that I know absolutely nothing about that I have to somehow between now and 11:30 figure out. Luckily for me, I’ve been doing this a long time so it’s easy to get up to speed," Shapiro says.

Shapiro has spent almost her entire legal career defending parents. Her days start at 4:30 a.m. so she can get in a few hours of work before dropping her own kids off at school. The schedule is grueling, but she says her clients never burn her out. "There’s so much stacked against them. They come into court with a petition filed against them, alleging that they’re neglectful parents, but when you speak to them you get a completely different picture, and when you see them with their children, you get a completely different picture," she says.

The challenge is showing others that picture. For two years, Shapiro’s office provided Alicia Rojas not only a lawyer, but a social worker to get her into the right drug treatment program, pair her with the right counselors, and make sure she didn’t relapse again. Rojas says getting that kind of help from the office forced her to get better. "Sometimes I thank God that my kids were taken away. I think if they weren’t I would have still had the mentality to think that I can still do this and be high. I see it now as tough love. That was my tough love," she says.

Shapiro says the vast majority of their cases are like Rojas -– parents who are not beating their kids. She says only about five percent of their cases involve really serious child abuse. Most are neglect cases, allegations about poor housing conditions, parents who are mentally ill or using drugs, children not showing up at school or children left home alone too long. Shapiro says what her clients ultimately represent is really a story about poverty. She says you never see rich parents in Family Court. "We’ve had cases where one of the allegations is that the parent got $500 in food stamps to feed a family of five, but they don’t have any food at the end of the month," she says.

But the city says it does not remove kids just because their families are poor. "Poverty, by itself, is not neglect or abuse," says Gilbert Taylor, deputy commissioner who oversees all the city’s cases in Family Court. His agency conducted almost 65,000 abuse and neglect investigations this year, but only about 6,000 children were actually placed in foster care.

"Poverty definitely is a stress factor that many families have to contend with, particularly in New York City in this economic climate. But it’s safety. Safety is what we’re looking at," he says.

But Shapiro says “safety” is hard to define. Sure, there are the easy cases -– parents with serious mental illnesses who have so badly mistreated their children, they’ll never get their kids back. But for most of the parents she meets, giving them more resources to get better is how to keep kids safe -– not letting them languish in foster care. Take Rojas, for example.

Today, Rojas is 31 and graduating from a drug treatment program at Family Court in Brooklyn. That means the court will enter a final order officially returning her kids to her. They spent almost two years in foster care, and Rojas says her relationship with her kids is finally beginning to heal. Now she says for the first time in her life her children are looking up to her.

Rojas say now her daughters say things like, "I want my hair like yours. And I want the same pants you got."

"And that feels good. That’s what I want. I want my kids to look to me and say, I want to be like my mom," Rojas says.

That’s not something she would have said to her own mom, a woman who didn’t show her kids much affection. But Rojas says that’s the point of a day like today: You can choose the kind of mom you want to be.

To see photos and hear more about how Brooklyn Family Defense Project integrates social workers into their practice, go to the WNYC News Blog