It is not an easy decision. Suppose a friend of mine in another State needed a DCF defense lawyer. I would advise the friend to ask each possible lawyer at least the following questions:
1. Do you regularly oppose DCF by representing adults in contested court cases?
The reason is simple. DCF cases are not like criminal cases or divorce cases. They have some elements in common with those cases, but they are not the same. The pretrial procedure is different, the evidentiary rules are different, the motions are different, and the client is required to speak to the opposing party (DCF), whether he wants to or not. Also, the press and public are usually excluded, giving the State more power than in a public trial.
Also, it is important that the lawyer be familiar with defending adults in contested DCF cases. We have seen many instances in which “experienced” DCF defense lawyers botched cases, because their experience was in representing children, not adults. Representing children is totally different from representing adults. The training is different, the goals are different, and the defense methods are wildly different. Please be careful on this.
2. Are you familiar with criminal law and divorce law?
Your DCF case might already encompass, or could encompass in the future, a criminal case or a divorce case, or even both. The lawyer should have some experience with these types of cases, as what happens in criminal or divorce court may affect juvenile court, and vice-versa. For example, taking a plea bargain may be routine in criminal court, but it can have severe unintended consequences in juvenile court, where the evidentiary standards are different. Also, a divorce or post-judgment matter will often be put on hold, pending what happens in juvenile court. If you are involved in two or more courts, it might help financially to have the same lawyer for all of them.
NOTE TO CLIENTS: If you do have a related case, whether civil or criminal, you may be able to look up your case and get details on your state's judicial website.
Note on Family Relations
When a case is in Family Court for divorce, post-judgment, or otherwise, it is standard for the parties to go to Family Relations before appearing before the Judge. Family Relations will normally ask you if there are any Juvenile Court orders in place. They have the right to check to see if any Juvenile Court orders have been entered, as these could impact Family Court.
However, Family Relations sometimes asks about DCF investigations, and may wish to see any DCF substantiations or registry recommendations. Keep in mind that Family Relations has no authority to access these documents, whatever they may tell you. They simply do not.
You are NOT required to sign a release authorizing Family Relations to access your DCF documents. Failing to sign such a release will not "count against you."
This prevents a party from using a substantiation or registry placement against the other party. And that is as it should be: DCF administration findings have a totally different legal standard than do Family Court Findings.
3. Do you meet with DCF and the client together from time to
DCF has enormous advantages, in that the client is forced to meet with them, or be branded as non-compliant. Further, it is economically impossible for the lawyer to be present at every such meeting. However, the lawyer must be present at some meetings, including initial ones, to set the tone and protect the client’s rights. Therefore, the lawyer should be willing to make “home visits” and attend meetings at DCF offices when needed. DCF defense law is almost never limited to the lawyer’s office; and certainly not to occasional courthouse chats.
4. Do you get a copy of the client’s file and review the important records with the client?
There is a wealth of information on clients in DCF files, and often there is a smoking gun. Getting the information is sometimes difficult, and reviewing it is tedious. However, any lawyer who does not do that, and is not fully prepared, will not be in a position to adequately represent the client. Further, if a court case has already started, then court files must be reviewed. The lawyer must review the important records with the client, in order to plan a proper defense. Otherwise, the lawyer is flying blind.
5. Do you appear at case status conferences with your own recommendations, or do you simply wait for the DCF recommendations?
Being unprepared, and waiting for DCF to tell you what to do, is a losing strategy. A prepared lawyer will have reviewed files, spoken to the client, spoken to service providers, gathered witnesses and documents, and be ready with his own recommendations. The lawyer must be prepared to file court motions if needed. In simplest terms, your lawyer must be pro-active; since DCF, a large organization represented by the State Attorney General, most certainly is.
6. Do you regularly interface with other lawyers in the case?
In a court case, the child has a court-appointed lawyer, and sometimes a court-appointed Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) as well. Your lawyer should work with those people and ensure that they have all the facts, not simply DCF’s facts. Further, your lawyer should ensure that they visit the child, see parent/child interaction, and have the opportunity to interview the parent and visit the home. The lawyer should ensure that they have access to all documents, not simply the ones that DCF gives them or that are easily available. Occasionally, your lawyer can work with the Assistant Attorney General (AAG), who represents DCF, if DCF is being particularly difficult. The point is that your lawyer should be willing to work, on your behalf, with the other lawyers in all cases.
7. Are your costs reasonable?
Sadly, lawyers have nothing to sell but time. Costs vary, and they can almost never be guaranteed in advance, as cases depend upon many factors. You want to ensure that the lawyer uses appropriate technology to minimize costs, and uses associates and paralegals whenever possible to keep costs down. Further, you want to ensure that you aren’t paying for unnecessary frills. Your lawyer should be able to offer you a brief consultation at a reasonable fee, before you commit to full representation.
8. Do you use e-mail?
E-mail is the greatest office time-saver ever developed. If you have to waste time playing telephone tag, the chances are that you are being short-changed. Further, if your lawyer cannot or will not communicate with you, then you are certainly being short-changed. Lawyers are busy, and unlike on TV, they have many clients and many cases; but they should still be reasonably available, and always there in case of emergency.
9. Do you prepare clients for psychological evaluations?
In many cases, parents are required to undergo a psychological evaluation, and/or an interactional evaluation with the children. These are always nerve-wracking, and have often led to disasters for unprepared parents. Your lawyer should be familiar with the ins and outs of psychological evaluations, and prepare you for what lies ahead, so that you will do your best.
Suffice it to say that clients who are not prepared for psychological evaluations often find themselves the victims of damaging, if not fatal, testimony at court. If your lawyer can’t help you, then he or she is unaware of one of the most important topics in DCF defense law.This is an important and difficult topic. Full explanatory details are found in
10. Do you have access to expert witnesses if needed?
Occasionally it is necessary to hire an expert witness, whether in psychology, medical technology, child custody, or other matters. Your lawyer should be able to find and help you retain such an expert witness if needed.
We also have a licensed forensic clinical psychologist, and a licensed pediatrician, available to consult with us on an as-needed basis. These doctors are local and very accessible. We do not simply accept DCF's word that there is a problem, if there is any doubt at all.
11. Do you use a lobbyist?
DCF typically is very active in dealing with the State Legislature to get its way. DCF tries to get bills through the Legislature, get administrative regulations approved, and squash any attempts to get bills and regulations passed that would restrict its powers. DCF also disguises its lobbyists, who are typically DCF employees, as “legislative liaisons”, “government relations consultants”, and the like. The upshot is that taxpayers, in effect, pay DCF to lobby against the taxpayers’ own interests. Your lawyer should have access to a lobbyist who at least keeps abreast of DCF doings in the Legislature and tries to influence the Legislature for the benefit of clients, before it is too late. This, of course, is unfortunately another reason why you cannot defeat DCF for free.
We regularly attempt to get favorable bills
passed in the State Legislature. Examples include bills to:
require DCF to give effective advance written warnings to
parents before submitting to a DCF investigative interview or
home visit (the “Mini-Miranda”); stop DCF from reducing or
suspending visitation as a tool for punishing non-deferential
parents; make it easier to dismiss improper DCF petitions;
require DCF to adhere to its own Regulations to provide proper
affidavits; and many others.
In an incredible case in 2010, DCF attempted to introduce a bill to allow DCF to suspend a Judge’s order to return children to their parents, if the Commissioner objected to the placement. (Raised Bill 5310). This actually happened in America. Fortunately, the Bill was defeated; but it proves that with DCF, you can take nothing for granted.
12. How do you deal with stonewalling?
The strongest DCF technique for winning cases is a simple one: stonewalling. DCF will promise to do something, smile, and then simply not do it. Many lawyers simply argue and argue and make phone calls. The parents get frustrated, and also argue with the social workers. That, of course, almost always makes it worse.
You need to know how your lawyer deals with stonewalling. If DCF continues to refuse to do what it should, does your lawyer know how to go up the chain of command? Does your lawyer utilize the other lawyers in the case? Does your lawyer file motions in court, including contempt motions when necessary, to force DCF into action?
Unless your lawyer fights fire with fire, and utilizes the courts when DCF refuses to do its job, then you are being shortchanged. Make sure that your lawyer is not the type to get discouraged or demoralized by stonewalling tactics.
It’s not how bright you are. It’s how you act when things are dim.
13. Do you have support staff?
I once had a dentist who had no support staff. He did his own cleanings, phone answering, bill paying, scheduling, and the like. He was of course qualified to do all this, but it restricted his time to practice dentistry and also to keep up with the profession.
All professionals need support staff. There is simply too much work to do, and too many new things to read and study, to let the professional be tied up with routine office administration.
If your lawyer has a good and caring paralegal, the vast majority of routine matters will be handled faster and less expensively than if the lawyer has to do it. Also, if the lawyer has other lawyers available in the office, then scheduling conflicts will be minimized. It is not unknown for a law firm to have to be in 2 or 3 different courts at once.
There is no hard-and-fast rule, but I would be very leery of a lawyer with no support staff, or a staff consisting only of a telephone message service.
There are other possible questions. In the end, choosing a lawyer is a judgment call. I hope that the above list will prove useful.