Problems with the Children's Attorney Project

The Children's Attorney Project in Clark County is a program that provides free attorneys to represent the wishes of a child in foster care or abuse/neglect proceedings. Here is their minimally descriptive webpage (archive copy 1/6/05). These attorneys are provided under contract with the county by Clark County Legal Services, a non-profit law firm that provides various legal services to the indigent. The Executive Director, Barbara Buckley is also a state legislator, so the group is actively involved in the development of new child welfare legislation. The CAP program is supposed to represent what children themselves say they want, rather than what others think they need. It is supposed to "empower" kids by giving them a say in processes effecting them.

While it may sound noble to give a child his own attorney, the CAP program is murky in both law and practice. The problem boils down to "needs" vs. "wishes". The rest of the legal system is concerned with the best interests of the child, which may be entirely different from his expressed wishes. When the two are in conflict, which one is the CAP attorney supposed to represent?

Their official website says only this about their mission: "The fundamental goal was to create a method for abused and neglected children, who are in foster care placement, institutions or wards of the state, to have a voice in court and speak out for their destiny.... These attorneys serve as the child's voice before the court and community allowing the children to take an active role (and responsibility) in their own destiny."

...So it sounds like they are representing the "wishes" of the child. But at what point does this theory break down?

For example, if a five-year-old is taken from his mother due to her drug abuse, he almost certainly wants to go back to her, and his CAP attorney, if representing his "wishes," would have to defend this position even if it wasn't in the child's best interests. Then, a few months later, the child may change his mind and want to stay with his foster family, and the CAP would have to defend that, too—even if the system is now trying to reunite the child with his mom.

Under the law, the child's wishes are irrelevant in both cases, so whatever the CAP attorney is crowing about is mostly noise.

Without a clear mission, CAP attorneys in Clark County just "wing it." How the child is represented seems to be totally up to the individual attorney, and different CAP attorneys could promote completely different positions. The result, in practice, is a chaotic, unfocussed program without effective managment. It seems to work against the best interests of the child as often as it works for them.

In recent years, perhaps due to the lack of alternatives, CAPs have been assigned to children of any age, even those who can't talk at all. How do these lawyers determine the wishes of their client? They just know. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the CAPs have almost no legal power, since there are few provisions in Nevada law for the wishes of the child.

They do seem successful, however, in getting themselves in the press, offering their version of reality for high-profile cases. Unfortunately, most of the other actors—DFS, the District Attorney and the Court—are prohibited by law from discussing juvenile cases, so the CAP's position is often the only one heard. Because they usually have no legal leg to stand on, they tend to try their cases in the media, and their statements tend to have elements of simplistic rightousness and cowboy self-promotion.

"The situation dealt me a strong hand, and I played all the cards," said one CAP attorney*.

    Some of the vagaries of the Children's Attorney Project could be addressed by inspired leadership. Unfortunately, Clark County Legal Services ain't providing it. Lead Attorney Steve Hiltz and Executive Director Buckley are Out to Lunch at best. If they think otherwise, then we have a challenge for them.

    They have a webpage describing the CAP program. We would like them to use this page to describe what their mission is. Specifically, what exactly are the taxpayers paying CCLS for?

    We believe that any organization receiving government funding should have a clear Mission Statement and a clear mission underlying it. The taxpayers should know exactly what they are getting for their money and should have some method of evaluating the results.

    For example, the Mission Statement should tell us what the program is supposed to represent: The "wishes" of the child or the "best interests" of the child? If the answer is "both," then at what point and under what conditions is one given preference over the other? (It seems hard for an attorney to walk into court to represent a child if he doesn't know what he is supposed to represent.) How does a CAP attorney determine the wishes of a child, especially a very young one? Is there a certain psychological protocol they are trained to use? (Deciding what children want is a lot like the problems of interviewing children in criminal cases, because kids are so easily influenced by the interviewer.)

    The webpage could also tell us the mechanisms that CCLS uses to assure the quality of the representation given by its CAP attorneys. How are they supervised and evaluated? How do we, as taxpayers, know that they are doing their job?

    What are the criteria used for hiring attorneys for the CAP program? Is a law degree all that is required, or should CAP attorneys also have some sort of background in child psychology? Can we see a profile for each of the attorneys on the staff and their special qualifications for dealing with children? If no, why not?

    These are all reasonable requests we think. They have a website already, so let's fill it up with something. There shouldn't be anything secret or sensitive about any of this information, especially if this is a private group receiving government funding (which is always vulnerable to being cut off.)

    So let's see it.

    [1/6/06, 1/16/06, 3/7/07]

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