Thursday, September 18, 2008

Switching Hats

Today I appeared in court in a new role for me: Guardian Ad Litem for a "Child" in a child neglect case. A child in Nebraska is a person under 18 and this case involves two teenagers. I won't go into a lot of details as it's both on-going and personal for the family involved. Like most of my cases, it's meth-related but I look at it differently as I'm wearing a "different hat."

When the attorney for the father turned in court and asked the kids whether they were afraid of their father, I didn't object because I knew both what they would say and what I would say later. What would you have said if you hadn't seen your dad in a couple months, had been pulled from your home and were now living in a relative foster care placement?

They said what I would have said, what almost all of us would have said: "No, I'm not afraid."

But there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of this, none of which I list have anything to do with this particular case but with all meth related cases in general. One reason is that even if you combine a reasonable person with a lack of sleep for a few days, they quickly devolve into unpredictability. Another is that it's easy to fake sobriety when there are no "UA's" to verify that a person is staying "clean." A third is that, at least in my experience, even a few weeks away from meth doesn't eliminate the "tweaking" behavior and irrational decision making that tend to accompany an active user.

Just yesterday a client of mine graduated from Adult Felony Drug Court, earning a dismissal of his felony charges. A month or so ago, a former hard-core user client of mine graduated, along with his wife, successfully from a Juvenile Court Drug Court Program for parents.

I got a chance to speak and I told a story. It wasn't very uplifting but I thought it was appropriate. I told how I got a call from my favorite client, who successfully broke away from heroine, whose appearance changed so much it would bring tears to the eyes of people who saw how great she looked after looking so close to death as she came to court. I told about meeting this client at the jail and watching her collapse on the floor there, of her then falling on the floor of the "arraignment courtroom" a few days later, screaming out the name of the last person who could help her, her public defender.

And then I told about getting a call from her a few years later and her wanting to say thank you. It wasn't the content of the call that got me down, it was the background noise that made the thank you not be very welcome. You know the sound. The universal jail background noise.

So my story wasn't to uplift but to remind these people, who were graduating after less than a year of being clean and sober, that they weren't out of the woods yet. I almost invoked a story from "Deep Survival" in which Laurence Gonzales describes telling people who were setting out to climb mountains that their goal wasn't to reach the summit but to reach the car again. This would remind them that the work wasn't done once you started back down as most accidents seemed to happen not when your guard and senses were up but when you let them down, thinking your work was over and your goal achieved.

It didn't go over very well, but I didn't care. I was sick of seeing "frequent flyers" come back to see me on new charges shortly after their other case ended. I was a little disheartened that after having about 30 trial on termination of parental rights cases and losing about 29, the one client whose case I "won" or who rather cleaned herself up enough that the judge was convinced she deserved another chance, ended up, a few years later being my first case involving possession of meth with intent to distribute.

As depressing as that story is, it's not over as she just entered inpatient treatment and will, if everything goes well, enter Adult Felony Drug Court in a month or so. Maybe this will her "bottom." This time if it isn't, she'll go to prison. But if it is, her first felony will later be dismissed.

So I enjoyed my new role as Guardian Ad Litem. I've heard so much b.s. over the years from active addicts that I just consider if symptomatic and ignore it, believing my eyes and not my ears.

I'm grateful for this past experience, however, because it helps me in this role. I know that asking the kids if they were afraid of their actively-using dad right in front of him and the judge may have convinced the father that his kids have forgiven him but it didn't convince me of anything. It's what Seinfeld would call a "must lie situation": only the most scared or most manipulative teenager would have said "yes."

It's interesting though, to wear a different hat, to have to think of what's in the best interests of two teenagers who are mature enough to take care of things like feeding and cleaning up after themselves but who really need their parents to be both sober and there for them in their teenage years.

I spoke to a judge once who described requiring parties in Juvenile Neglect cases to "switch hats" periodically. He said it was good for them to think of the cases differently, to walk in the shoes of a different party once in awhile.

Great idea as I do see things differently, wearing this hat and having to look out for these kids.

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