Jenna Mazzucca practices as a guardian ad litem in the 11th and 12th Judicial Districts in dependency and neglect and juvenile delinquency cases.
Why did you choose to practice child welfare law?
I went to undergrad knowing I wanted to be a lawyer, and a work study opportunity came up that put me in public schools assisting teachers at an elementary school two or three days per week. I accepted the position because it was one of the better paying work study jobs, but found myself really enjoying working with children. I knew little about the legal field. I didn’t think there was any way to work directly with kids and pursue a career in law until I got to law school and began an internship with the Colorado Bar Association and its Youth at Risk task force. That project focused on kids aging out of foster care. I met many great people at OCR and Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center and started the Juvenile and Family Law club at Colorado University, taking law students to foster youth to talk about how we could develop ways to assist them with aging out of foster care. I graduated during the 2008 recession, but opened my own practice in my hometown and began working for OCR!
What has been the most rewarding moment for you while working with children and families in the child welfare system?
We recently finalized an adoption of a child who had been through a lot. It was one of my oldest cases and such a long time coming. His sister did not want to terminate her parents’ rights so we did not do so in her case which, at times, did cause some disagreement between the siblings. But, adoption day was such a happy day when it finally came. His sister joined us and supported him.
Describe a challenge you face doing this work and your strategies to overcome it.
One is just managing time, both in the office and out of the office. I have young kids at home and making time to be efficient with my caseload, spend time at home with my family, and carve out some self-care time (yoga! running!) is challenging. I was able to surround myself with some amazing staff and draw some pretty firm boundaries with the work-life balance and I think it is absolutely critical to my success in the office. We cannot help these families if we are burnt out.
What advice do you have for an attorney who is new to child welfare law?
To strive from the beginning to avoid the burnout. Once you start being the person that works evenings and weekends, you will always be that person. It may work at first, but could eventually become a problem and it is a very tough habit to break. Most of us that do this work are fortunate to be working for ourselves, and that is an amazing privilege in itself, but can also be easy to just work all the time and blur the lines.
What drives you to continue in this line of work and do you have any advice for seasoned attorney?
Seeing parents be successful. Sometimes it’s both parents, other times it’s just mom or just dad. When we reunify a family, that is the best! I guess if I had any advice it might be to try to see all sides of the case. As a GAL we have to advocate for what is best for kids, no doubt, but we can do so in a way that honors and respects what the other parties’ positions are. I think it is easier to do that in a smaller, rural jurisdiction like mine where we all wear many hats and are a close-knit group of attorneys. The county attorney is someone I could run into in the grocery store or the school drop off line, so is the caseworker, the parent, the parent’s attorney, foster parents, extended family, therapists, etc. If things get too acrimonious and personal it could make the job, and my everyday life, very miserable.
Share a litigation strategy.
I successfully kept a child from having to testify at a termination trial in a situation that involved a parent who was constantly guilting the child for the case. Although we want kids in court and to be heard, this child was very adamant about not being cross-examined by her mother’s lawyer. No one on the case seemed to think I had much of a chance to keep the child off the stand, given she was older and had suffered no physical abuse on the part of the mother. Even DHS had decided it was okay for the child to testify because they did not want to unnecessarily create an appellate issue. But I asked for a contested hearing, subpoenaed the child’s therapist, and we prevailed. DHS even changed their position at the end of the hearing and joined my request.