For my second thread blog thread, I’m going to post material from a manuscript titled Life in the Breakdown Lane.
In this country, children’s services agencies and juvenile courts intersect at a place I call the breakdown lane. Telling the story of this place seems as insurmountable as it is important. An occasional headline gives the public a glimpse into these cases: a father is convicted of shaking a baby now brain-damaged for life; a mother beats a five-year-old boy to death; and another mother fatally scalds a two-year-old girl in a bathtub. But there are so many cases that don’t make the headlines or become the lead story on the evening news.
I’ve traversed the lane for over thirty years, mainly as a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) or as counsel for abused and neglected children, although I’ve sometimes been assigned counsel for a parent. I’ve also seen the system through the eyes of a foster parent, and foster care plays a large role in children’s cases.
GALs represent the best interests of the children, not always a simple concept. From time to time I’ve jotted down flashes and fragments of my life in this system, and from those I’ve created Life in the Breakdown Lane. This book is about only one face of the juvenile justice system, the part that deals with abuse, neglect and dependency (referred to locally as the AND cases). Occasionally one of these cases will touch the delinquency side of the court, but that’s not the emphasis here.
There are a number of lenses through which to view the system, and each forms a chapter of this book. Probably the most important but least articulated is the public policy behind these cases. We need to pay more attention to what commentators and critics tell us.
Next in importance, perhaps, is the physical complex itself. The architecture of the buildings tells the community about their importance or lack thereof. Three years ago Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court moved from three unconnected buildings near downtown to a towering edifice in an out-of-the-way poverty pocket of the city.
Another lens focuses on the roles in the court system. First there are the judges and magistrates who will hear the cases. In addition to the GALs and assigned counsel, public defenders and private attorneys also represent parties. The County Prosecutor’s office assigns prosecutors to the children’s services cases as well as the delinquency cases, and occasionally probation officers interact with the AND cases.
The legal foundations for the system rest mainly on statutes and case law that the judges and magistrates apply. There are also procedural rules specific to the juvenile courts of Ohio and Superintendence Rules that apply to the GALs. All attorneys and judges are bound by Ohio’s Code of Professional Responsibility.
I’m often asked why I do this work, a question that assumes that we always know our motivations. I can only identify two. My eighteen-year-old memories of mothering my younger brother and sister after our mother’s death are an obvious tie into being the advocate for kids.
The other answer it’s the writer in me that’s drawn to this work. Every case has its own story, and the stories are incredible. Where else would I find the characters in the long-running drama that’s staged at The East 93rd Street Theatre of the Performing Arts? Luigi Pirandello wrote a play entitled Six Characters in Search of an Author. Some of the court dramas seem like comedies, some like tragedies, but sometimes I can insert lines that change an outcome. That’s being a playwright in real life. What writer could resist?