Last week, I received an email inquiring whether my clinic measured the outcomes of my students’ work representing parents and children involved in the foster care system. Did their legal representation result in kids being sent back home more quickly? Or getting into permanent homes expeditiously? How much money did our work save the child protection system?
These questions didn’t surprise me. They are the standard questions being asked of so many legal representation programs these days. I get it. We live in a data-driven world, singularly obsessed with cost savings and efficiency. The language of accountability and performance is everywhere. Innovative programs are always asked, “Where is your data?”
I proudly drafted a response to the email explaining that we, in fact, keep track of none of those metrics. Because in my mind, those numbers don’t capture the meaningful impact of my students’ work with clients. In fact, as I reflected on my cases, traditional measures would likely cast our work as failures.
I think of the mother — whose children remain in foster care because of a longstanding addiction to heroin — who calls my student on a Friday night because she is trying to muster up the courage to re-enter substance abuse treatment.
I think of our teenage client living in a residential facility who reaches out to students because he is confused about his sexual identity and has many questions.
I think of a young woman living in a group home who learns she is pregnant and is afraid to tell her family. So she calls her student-lawyers in tears, asking for their guidance.
In each of these examples, we are “failing.” We’re not close to achieving permanency. We aren’t close to getting kids out of the foster care system. We’re not really saving anyone any money.
But in each case, those students have done something far more important — they’ve created beautiful relationships with those they serve. As child welfare lawyers, little matters more than the relationships we form with our clients.
We don’t form relationships as a means to achieve outcomes the system wants. The relationship is, in and of itself, the end we must seek. The measure of success that matters most is whether lawyers can form trusting relationships with their clients, ones in which both lawyers and clients lean on and learn from one another. These relationships are why I do this work.
Instead of measuring the worth of lawyers by looking at their impact on outcomes in child protection cases, what if we tracked the quality of their relationships with families? We should be surveying to find out how lawyers made their clients feel, and how much clients impacted the lives of those lawyers. In other words, we should focus on the kinship created between lawyers and those who have been excluded by systems.
Later this month, I’ll be traveling to Maryland to attend the wedding of a young man who I represented in foster care nearly two decades ago. Using the traditional outcomes the system measures, as a lawyer, I completely failed him. His placement with relatives fell apart. He aged out of foster care. He entered the criminal justice system.
And yet, over the years we’ve stayed in touch. We text. We’ve had meals together. He asks for advice. I ask for his. He sends me pictures of his kids. And now I’m attending his wedding.
Yes, nothing about the quality of our relationship will ever show up in a formal evaluation or study. But in my mind, these are the things that will transform the lives of both families and the lawyers who have the honor of representing them.