5 Confessions of a CPS Department Attorney

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Some of my parent attorney colleagues used to joke with me that I represented “baby stealers.” I took it all in good fun and resisted the urge to come up with a sharp-tongued retort about their clients. Because the truth of the matter is, in most of my cases, I was rooting for the parents to get their kids back just as much as their attorneys were. Maybe that’s my “dirty little secret” as a CPS Department Attorney – but I’m willing to bet I’m not alone. In fact, I think you will see a common theme in this post. So here it is, my list of 5 “confessions” of a CPS Department Attorney.

1) Often, we are rooting for reunification as much as everyone else in the courtroom.

I had the occasion this week to train foster parents on their legal rights. When we got to the point of discussing termination of parental rights (TPR) and adoption, one of the foster parents, who had adopted two children and was in the process of adopting a third, talked about the sadness of a TPR hearing, even though it meant she could adopt the child she had come to love. I echo her sentiment. TPR hearings are never happy occasions; no matter how certain you are that is it the “right” result in a particular case.

No matter what role we play in the system, I think we all want what is best for the child. My experience with the child welfare world has instilled in me the belief that kids do better with their parents, when it is a safe place for them to be. That belief is not only what has shaped my view as a CPS Department attorney, but also why, as a Department attorney, I rooted for reunification in the overwhelming majority of cases.

2) If, as a parent attorney, your client is having a difficult time working with the case manager, we want you to let us know.

This goes hand in hand with the concept that we are rooting for reunification of the family. If a parent is having a difficult time working with the child welfare system, we want to know so that we can intervene before it escalates to the point that relationships are beyond repair. Although as department attorneys we do not supervise case managers, we do have a pretty direct line of communication with them. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of straightening out a miscommunication and other times, it may be something more serious. But most of the time, when I have been made aware of a problem, I have been able to engage the case manager, the parent, and the parent attorney to deal with the problem and move on in a positive direction. I would much rather confront the problem ahead of time than be blind-sided in a court hearing.

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3) If as the child’s attorney, your client is not getting his/her needs met, we want you to let us know.

Ignorance is bliss doesn’t always apply in the courtroom because you are bound to have to deal with unspoken issues sooner or later. Just like we want to know if parents are having a problem with the system, we want to know if kids are as well. Our client is charged with taking care of the kids in its custody. We all know that the State is not a good parent. BUT, that doesn’t excuse our failure to do everything we can to make sure that every child’s needs are being met. That being said, kids are kids and all of them tend to ask for things that go beyond their “needs” – it’s just part of being a kid. But ask us for it anyway. I worked for a number of years with a Guardian ad Litem who would ask for the world for the kids she represented. Honestly, sometimes it annoyed me, not to mention the case manager. Sometimes it was, what I believed, a completely unreasonable request. But she was advocating for her client, who deserved to have a voice in the process. That’s the type of child welfare system these kids need.

4) We actually like collaborating.

Again, we all want what is best for kids. We often disagree about what that is or looks like, but starting out with that premise goes a long way. As lawyers, we are trained to operate in an adversarial system. That certainly has its place in child welfare, I’m not suggesting otherwise. But I AM suggesting that in many cases there is an opportunity for collaboration among the parties in order to achieve a positive outcome. In my experience, when those opportunities arise, CPS department attorneys are open to them.

5) Just because our client is a government agency, doesn’t mean we have any more control over our client than you do yours. In fact, it sometimes means we have even less.

After an unusually difficult hearing in which the court chastised the case manager for, frankly, not doing her job, the deputy in the courtroom walked up to me and said, “after representing the department, I bet you could pretty much represent anyone.” I didn’t appreciate the comment at the time. However, in thinking about it over the years, the undertone of the comment was that representing the CPS department was not an easy task. That’s definitely true, but probably not for the reasons he thinks. Ultimately we represent a system that is bureaucratic and often inflexible. We are asked to defend policies that make no sense or that are not consistent with the law. Our main witnesses (case-managers) are completely over-worked and are asked to accomplish more in a day than there are hours to do it. I’m not making excuses; I’m calling it as I’ve experienced it. Department attorneys deal with that reality daily and have to figure out how to navigate those issues and still represent our client effectively. We often have to penetrate many layers of bureaucracy to figure out what the CPS department is advocating for in a given hearing. We all have our challenges. I see my parent and child attorney colleagues deal with difficult clients too. But just know, we feel your pain.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NACC.

About Brooke Silverthorn

Brooke Silverthorn, a Child Welfare Law Specialist, comes to the NACC from Atlanta, Georgia where she served as a Special Assistant Attorney General, representing the Gwinnett County Department of Family and Children Services for the past 8 years. She also served as a Supreme Court of Georgia Cold Case Fellow, reviewing cases of children in foster care with no identifiable progress toward permanency, and making recommendations to facilitate permanency. She is a holistic practitioner and has enjoyed engaging both parent and child attorneys to reunify families. Prior to her work as a Special Assistant Attorney General, Brooke was a contract attorney with both the Barton Child Law and Policy Center and the Southern Juvenile Defender Center (SJDC) at Emory University School of Law. She was a leader in the Barton Center’s legislative and policy work. She also participated in the policy work of SJDC, including serving as a contributing author of a Juvenile Defense Manual. While attending law school, Brooke worked at the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice on legislative issues. Brooke received her BA in Sociology from Michigan State University and her JD from Georgia State University College of Law. Brooke is honored to join the NACC as a staff attorney and hopes to play a key role in child welfare policy and advocacy initiatives nationally. Brooke is excited to bring her experience in the courtroom to enhance the legal training program at the NACC. Brooke grew up in Michigan and loves her home state, particularly her Michigan State Spartans. She is an animal lover and has both dogs and cats of her own. In her spare time, she loves to be outdoors, playing with her dogs, hiking, running and enjoying the fresh air.

5 Comments
  1. NACC is quite lucky to have Brooke Silverthorne on their team! I had the opportunity to see her in action many times during my tenure as a Juvenile Court Judge in Georgia. Brooke is one of the finest, most well prepared, and caring lawyers to appear before me. Dealing with tough cases, with limited resources and yes, a very difficult client (a governmental bureaucracy), Brooke managed to balance her duty to her client, her duties as an officer of the court, and her professional and ethical obligations incredibly well, and all within a very broken and malfunctioning system. NACC’s gain is certainly Georgia’s loss!

  2. A thoughtful and well-spoken post, Ms. Silverthorne! Know that you are missed in Georgia. Go Sparty! At least go far enough to beat Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame. Stay in touch with us.
    RLW

  3. Well said Brooke! I very much concur with your “confessions.” – LA

  4. Thanks so much for reading my blog post and commenting. I was fortunate to work with and learn from some amazing colleagues in Georgia, the three of you among them! Thanks again, Brooke

  5. I have a question? How do you depict from a case where a child was mistakenly taken from the parents and the child was already investigated by a detective? The detective closed the case but child welfare stepped in because the parent told CPS that they couldn’t question child anymore alone without a family member adult. Does this makes sense????

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