My law students entered my virtual office dejected. Their teenage client had been accused of assault. As a result, he needed to change foster care placements, again.
His mental health needs were not being addressed by the child welfare agency. There were no clear solutions or paths to a better life for this kid. They weren’t getting good outcomes. So my students felt like they were failing as lawyers.
Increasingly, outcomes have been the measure the child welfare field has looked to define the worth of lawyering. A 2019 study hailed multidisciplinary legal representation a success because legal teams in institutional offices got kids home more quickly without any increased safety risks. Studies have demonstrated that good lawyering can lead to increased kinship placements, expedited permanency and fewer adjournments, among other things. Many states have become interested in strengthening child welfare lawyering precisely because of these outcomes.
While we should certainly celebrate these outcomes, I worry that in doing so, we’re missing a fundamental point about the worth of a lawyer – that is, a good lawyer can be “successful” without achieving any of these outcomes.
The words of German theologian, Diettrick Bonhoeffer, helped me redefine success for myself and my students. Bonhoeffer wrote that people should seek to “comfort the troubled and trouble the comforted.” This, regardless of what outcome we achieve, is how we must redefine success in child welfare lawyering.
I think of the hours my law students spent with that client, listening to his story, answering his questions and giving him the space to laugh, cry and grieve. I think of how he went from a child unwilling to speak with them because he had been abandoned by so many to someone who now confides secrets in them. He no longer hesitates to seek out their counsel. Through their comfort, they have formed true kinship with him.
Given what we know about the importance of feeling heard in overcoming any trauma, this kinship is a necessary first step toward healing.
At the same time, they have also troubled the comfortable, those who are complacent to use shame, blame and judgment to drive a wedge between families and the system intended to support them. They’ve called out failures by caseworkers who refused to provide the services our client needs. They’ve pushed back when people, without even acknowledging the years of intense trauma our client has experienced, have tried to label our client as violent and aggressive.
Their refusal to conform and simply go with the flow has meant that others aren’t excited to see them at a team meeting. But in doing so, they’re taking an important step toward making the “good trouble,” the late civil rights icon, John Lewis, instructed all of us to do.
Comfort the troubled. Trouble the comforted. These are the measures of lawyering that matter to me, regardless of what outcomes are achieved. These are what “successful” child welfare lawyers are doing all over the country. This is why systems should invest in these lawyers, not because of a precise outcome they might achieve. Requiring proof of outcomes before investing in quality lawyers ignores the intrinsic value of lawyering.
Two simple questions we can ask ourselves makes this point clear. If any of us were involved in the child welfare system, would we want a lawyer to comfort us, while troubling those causing us harm? Would we want our stories to be heard by our advocates, and then have them use those stories to force systems to pay attention to our needs? Would we want this regardless of what a study demonstrated?
So to my students and others who might question their efficacy as lawyers because they aren’t achieving certain outcomes, don’t listen to the noise in the field. Stand in kinship with your clients. And stand up to those in their way. When you do those things, you are a success.