A Tale of Two Advocates: Foster Parents and Ad Litems

By: Nicole Miller '19

It’s not easy being a law student. The lack of sleep, the time commitments, the demanding schedule. We’re all feeling it.

That’s why I felt pretty confident heading into law school as a thirty-year-old mom of two kids. I already had a bit of experience not sleeping, and the demands of homework and court can’t match the ever-present demands of a colicky infant.

So, while I felt my kids had prepared me for law school, what I didn’t expect was how some aspects of law school would prepare me for my kids. Not my biological kids—my foster kids.

A year before entering law school, my family became licensed as a foster family. We hit the ground running with a sibling set of three, doubling our family’s size overnight. I remember looking over at my husband one day in the midst of all the chaos, with a look that must have screamed, “What have we done?”

Three sibling sets and two individual placements later, I almost feel like a foster-parenting expert. Not that I have it all together but that I at least know my role and how to do it.

My foster care experience led me naturally to the Child Advocacy Clinic at SMU. I really came into the program thinking it would be a welcomed break from my personal work in the child welfare system.

However, after diving into my cases, I realized (perhaps, somewhat ridiculously late) that people were looking to me to determine what was best for these children. The filings had my name, and my recommendations.

My voice mattered. It was lasting and heavy.

I guess I never realized that the reason I was so comfortable in my role as a foster parent was because I knew my job—to love kids and give them a safe place to be for however long they’re with me. Foster parents don’t have attorneys. They don’t have rights. And unless speaking through a GAL or other representative, they don’t have a voice.

While this aspect of foster care has been frustrating to me in the past, I realized for the first time that it was actually somewhat freeing. I am completely confident in my ability to do my foster-parenting job well. I may not be perfect, but every kid will come and go from my home knowing that they were special, they were safe, and they were loved. But as a GAL/AAL, I am responsible for making decisions on behalf of these kids. I fight for their wishes or their best interests, and these decisions also have a lasting impact on every kid I encounter.

In many ways, these two roles are similar. Both serve kids who are caught in a system they never signed up for. Both seek to provide kids with a safe, stable environment that they deserve. And both roles are desperately needed.

Whether I tell people I’m a foster parent or a student lawyer representing abused children, they often respond with the same phrase: “I could never do that.” But the truth is, we can do these things. We can speak up for these kids. We can provide them a safe place to land. We can listen and learn from their stories.

While it’s true that we can’t do everything, each of us can still do something.

The Foster Parent: Friend or Foe

By: Nicole Miller '19

When working within the child welfare system, it is inevitable that GALs and AALs will need to work with foster parents. However, while foster parents are trained on how to parent these kids, they usually have no knowledge of the inner-workings of the system. Additionally, they may feel they have no voice within the system, which can lead to strained relationships.

As a law student who doubles as a foster parent, I possess a unique perspective that is hard to find within the child welfare system. On the one hand, I am your typical law student, focused on the cold, hard facts and able to handle the demanding schedule that this profession allows. On the other hand, I am a parent to kids from hard places, and I experience all the frustrations that come with working with these kids within the system.

This perspective allows me to provide some tips for lawyers when working with foster parents in the system.

  1. You’re not the only person who needs their time.
    As attorneys, we are accustomed to deadlines and meetings changing at the very last minute. Sometimes, we expect others to be as comfortable with such changes. However, foster parents have multiple meetings each month with CPS, agency reps, therapists, doctors, educators, and more. Often, their front door being somewhat of a revolving door; however, to manage all these schedules, they need predictable meeting times and quick communication regarding changes. This way, they are able to focus on the most important part of their jobs: providing a safe place for the kids.

  2. No one has explained the system to them.
    If your foster parent seems clueless when you mention court hearings or documents, it’s probably because no one has told them about the legal process for their foster kids. While you may not think it matters, foster parents need to know how the case is progressing, not just for themselves but also for the children they parent. Often times, kids have questions about their case. While a caseworker might be helpful to answer some questions, sometimes workers are unavailable (or unresponsive). Foster parents can feel like everyone is talking around them, but no one is talking to them.

  3. Foster parents can be a valuable source of information.
    Often times, foster parents know things about the child that even key players in the case don’t. Sometimes, foster children vent to other kids in the home, revealing information that may prove helpful in determining their best interest. If you are only getting information via a caseworker—especially a caseworker whose interest is adverse to yours—you might not be getting the whole story.

  4. Some foster parents want the birth families to succeed.
    It sometimes feels that the child welfare system places foster parents and birth families on opposite sides, when in reality, we should all be on the same team working toward the same goal: child safety and success. Some foster parents want a family to succeed, so they can be a helpful ally when you feel reunification or kinship may be the best option.

  5. Foster parents do not understand the GAL/AAL distinction.
    Foster parents may think that as the child’s attorney, you will do what is in their best interest. However, many do not know that the guardian ad litem and attorney ad litem serve different functions. Explaining your role may help them understand why you are advocating for a certain position in court, which may help prevent misunderstandings or feelings of betrayal later.

In the end, a good relationship with a foster family is a valuable asset. If anything, this relationship will provide you with an additional perspective as you analyze your case and determine your goals. While you and the foster family may want different results, cultivating an open line of communication is essential as you seek to determine the best result for your child client.



Reopened Eyes: Looking at Child Welfare Practice Through the Lens of My Student Lawyers

By: Diane M. Sumoski, Director and Supervising Attorney

I have been practicing law in Texas since 1987. 33 years. But, in truth, I started practicing in 1985 as a law student under the New York equivalent of the Texas State Bar’s “associate license.” Those extra two years count, and I’m about to tell you why (so log me in at 35 years of law practice).
In 2013, my life as a lawyer changed. Big time. After spending 26 years at a law firm I loved, with amazing lawyers who were smart, daring, and caring, I left to practice law at the SMU Child Advocacy Clinic, teaching, partnering with, and learning from aspiring lawyers. My new colleagues. And we represent the best interests and expressed desires of abused and neglected children. Wow.

Practicing law too often becomes routine. We forget the wonder of firsts: first client, first time encountering an issue, first time standing up in court and speaking to a judge, etc. etc. My colleagues have not forgotten. They are in that fresh and new moment. The excitement is palpable and contagious.

Here are a few sketches of the student lawyers who have made me remember why I practice law, and how important open fresh eyes are to zealously serving our clients:

  • Lindsey: Getting our case ready for a trial that would occur during her law school finals. Calm, cool, collected. WITH NO PRIOR EXPERIENCE. Because she knew what was right and was determined to get that result for our client.
  • Patrick: Digging into a messy file involving three children in foster care. Understanding – and articulating – their story. Caring about these kids as unique and precious individuals.
  • Mary Anne: Attending a parental visit and not hesitating to urge the caseworker to send the Mom to go get tested now for drugs – the drugs that caused this Mom to drop her child on her head some months before and the test that Mom had been skirting.
  • Ayu: Mere days into clinic practice, examining witnesses to show that this child needed his mother and should be returned to her – and that they both should be given help – not separation.

I’m consistently inspired by the student lawyers I supervise. They recognize they can make a difference in a client’s life. They remind me of the power we wield as lawyers, the importance of our profession, and the opportunities we have to effect change.

An experienced lawyer, like an old dog, can learn new tricks. Through this blog, I’ve asked the clinic’s student attorneys to share their thoughts, discoveries, and substantive legal analysis (on issues experienced lawyers sometimes take for granted, haven’t studied very carefully, or haven’t even considered). These lawyers-in-training have things to say through a lens that some of us may have lost. And they are pretty darned insightful and smart. And even if they don’t have “lawyering experience” – they have experiences as human beings that can make a difference in a case – or to a client.
Yes, I can claim 35 years a lawyer. And I’m privileged to be daily reminded of those first two. I hope you remember the beginning, enjoy the blog pieces, and learn -- as I have.