Representing Children in Dependency and Family Court: Beyond the Law
By Rebecca M. Stahl and Philip M. Stahl
Reviewed by Andrea Woods, Reference Librarian
Representing Children in Dependency and Family Court: Beyond the Law is a thoughtful new book from the ABA that guides legal representatives of children in dependency and family court through the professional and emotional challenges they will encounter. As the subtitle indicates, it takes readers “beyond the law” and delves into the complex psychological issues that children experience prior to and during these proceedings that their lawyers must understand. Authors Rebecca and Philip Stahl begin by examining the unique attributes that a child’s representative must have, noting that they need a fundamental curiosity about their child clients and a willingness to understand their motivations, feelings, and experiences. Only with this deeper level understanding of the child’s perspective can a lawyer adequately inform the judge what decisions the court should make, and the authors emphasize that the judge’s entire comprehension of the child will come from the lawyer’s ability to know and communicate the child’s views. In fact, the authors urge a new interpretation of the lawyer’s role, in which the lawyer uses the concept of an imaginary friend to guide their representation. In this model, the child retains a sense of autonomy and is able to use the lawyer to make sense of the adult world. This is especially relevant for children who are enmeshed in high-conflict situations, in which their parents are likely to put their own needs before their children’s.
The authors’ discussion of psychological issues provides the bulk of the book’s content, and it covers in detail trauma, child development, the impact of domestic violence on children, high-conflict separation and divorce, alienated-resistant children, and special circumstances such as neglect, immigration status, oppositional defiant disorder, and sexual abuse. Readers will benefit from the authors’ expertise with these complicated topics. With a thorough understanding of the ways that psychological issues manifest themselves both emotionally and physically, and what conditions are needed for a child to heal and recover, the lawyer can learn the proper way to communicate with their client and provide the best representation possible. The authors note that trauma-sensitive interviewing requires considerable patience and self-regulation on the part of the lawyer, and an awareness of the child’s reaction so that the representative can help the child client release emotion but also move forward. Again, the authors emphasize how critical it is for a child’s representative to understand why a child behaves in a certain way, rather than to focus on what the problematic behavior is.
The last three chapters of the book are devoted to the personal and professional challenges that a child’s representative will experience directly—ethical issues, bias, and personal impact. The authors acknowledge that the ethical issues are bound to be unique because of the tendency for the child’s representative to be the only legally trained person on the case other than the judge, as more and more litigants in these types of proceedings represent themselves. Furthermore, there is an inherent tension between the best interests of the child model and the child client’s personal autonomy that the lawyer must navigate. The authors’ comprehensive discussion of the types of bias that a child’s representative must grapple with is insightful and recognizes the difficulty of this type of work. They observe that children’s lawyers must be so fully trained in understanding bias that they can also recognize the biases of their own clients, unlike other areas of law practice where this is not necessary. Finally, the authors discuss the emotional and physical toll that representing children in dependency and family cases will have on their lawyers. With an understanding of how legal practice differs from healing professions, and the resulting limitations in terms of what children’s representatives can do that they must accept, the authors provide thoughtful advice on how to avoid compassion fatigue and continue to find reward in representing children. The authors do not suggest that there are easy ways to reconcile these personal and professional issues, but their knowledge and the breadth of their experience in representing children provides ample guidance.