Months before I ever began my internship with Dade Legal Aid, I was bombarded with warnings about how difficult it can be to work in child advocacy. “You’re going to see really sad cases,” they cautioned, “I hope it doesn’t turn you off to pursuing a law career.”
While I know people weren’t intentionally trying to dissuade me, their concern made me anxious, and the excitement I once felt quickly turned into worry over how I would cope with the harrowing cases that child dependency lawyers deal with on a daily basis.
When my first day came, I was anxious about observing court and keeping my emotions in check, but I would be given some time to build a thicker skin before being faced with that situation. Unfortunately for me, this was not the case. Right away, my site partner, Lindsay, and I were brought to court and tasked with taking notes on the cases that our lawyers had that day. I was determined to maintain my professional composure so I focused all my energy and attention on transcribing as much of the dialogue as I could onto my notepad. Surprisingly, my method worked! I realized that the more I prioritized note-taking in court, the less emotionally engaged I was in each case.
However, it wasn’t until I was tasked with taking notes on a Marchman hearing that I came to realize how fundamentally flawed my method truly was.
When our supervising lawyer informed us about Marchman hearings and invited us to attend one with her, I was undoubtedly excited. Marchman hearings are court proceedings in which families and friend petition the court to ask that a child be required by law to receive treatment for their drug and/or alcohol addiction. When we walked into the courtroom, the judge was in the middle of such a hearing with a 16 year old boy and his father. Right as Lindsay and I took our seats, the judge asked the young man if he had anything to say before she proceeded with her judgement,
“Yeah…send me wherever you want,” he answered calmly, “just know it’s not going to work. I don’t need help.”
In that moment I watched the boy’s father release a final sigh of defeat as he rested his trembling hands on his head. For a moment, I sat silently in shock; but then it came. I quietly succumbed to the wave of emotion that had finally broken through my newly built barrier.
As someone who has dealt with familial substance abuse all my life, the sentiment that the young boy expressed in court was all too familiar to me. For the first time, I felt like I was able to better understand the harsh realities of what took place in court that day.
After this experience and deeper introspection on my part, I saw that the method I developed was extremely selfish. I had effectively found a way to separate the humanity of the people in court from the cases I had been listening to; and, as a result, I began viewing the misfortunes of others solely as opportunities for my personal educational benefit. By refusing to come to terms with the reality of each case I effectively barred myself from being able to see the larger societal, institutional, and systematic factors that were present in each one. Therefore, I remain ignorant to the kinds of discrimination, disadvantages, and drawbacks that families and children are facing in this community.
Simply put, my approach was incredibly wrong and harmful. I apologize. I hope that I can continue to learn from my failures (and successes) throughout this incredible opportunity. While I’m still searching to find the right balance of emotion, objectivity, and understanding in the courtroom, I firmly believe that I’m one step closer than I was before!