Esther practices in the 1st Judicial District in Colorado.
Why did you choose to practice child welfare law?
I am in the field of child welfare law through the good fortune of serendipity. I went to law school as a second career student to become a criminal defense attorney for indigent clients. I began my legal career as a public defender in a rural district but through happy chance I was introduced to OCR and the field of child welfare law. Having spent my first career dedicated to children and youth as a United Methodist minister, I knew right away that this field was a perfect match for me.
What has been the most rewarding moment for you while working with children and families in the dependency and neglect system?
It’s too hard to pick just one, isn’t it? I have felt grateful and honored to be invited into the lives of children and families with trust and confidence in communities I otherwise would never have known. I have felt as proud as any mother hen watching a scared, angry girl grow into a young, courageous woman as she gave the student speech at her graduation. I am happy and somewhat surprised to find how much I have learned, and that I am truly able to advocate for and defend the best interest of kids through my growing legal skills.
If I had to pick, one of the most rewarding events in the past five years was being actively a part of building a community-based drug court program in the 3rd JD from the ground-up and seeing everyone—respondent parents’ counsel, GALs, county attorneys, judges, probation officers, sheriff’s deputies, mental health professionals, Department of Human Services caseworkers and directors, respondent parents, children, extended families, and the community at large—the whole “village” transformed through the joint effort.
Describe a challenge you face doing this work and your strategies to overcome it.
The stakes are so high in this field—the life of a child and that of an entire family. Because it is so important and because I am passionate, I become engrossed in my work. I get depressed. I did not start out this way—in fact I was the opposite of this before law school—but I am now a pretty jaded person. I get depressed that the world is as it is for so many kids and families, and disillusioned about our ability to change it. I have lost that hopeful spark in my spirit that really believed we could change the world and make a big and lasting difference. One strategy for this pitfall for me is to spend time with my kiddos. I’m too small to change the world, but maybe, just maybe I have made a small difference for one child, one day at a time. That child certainly makes a difference to me.
What advice do you have for an attorney that is new to child welfare law?
I think it is easy to become disillusioned and burnt-out in this highly emotionally-charged field. While as attorneys many of us may be natural “Lone Rangers,” I think as human beings we are designed to be at our best when we are connected with one another. Investing in the larger community in which I work, valuing collaborative relationships with other GALs, and forging relationships of trust and mutual respect with opposing counsel, other professionals, as well as families involved is time-intensive and not always an easy path. But, for me this has been a source of strength and humanity. It has kept me grounded and carried me in times when I felt depleted. Maybe it can work for others, too.
What drives you to continue in this line of work?
I really love working in this field. I love that though we are attorneys zealously representing opposing parties, we have a shared goal of furthering the best interest of children. I love that my opinion about the best interest of my client has a place in my advocacy for her, as well as his own opinion. I continue in this line of work because along with the heart break, there is also true joy.
I wouldn’t call it advice, but a thought for seasoned attorneys might be an invitation to make a special effort to reach out to mentor new attorneys. I think there is much to be gained on both sides!