Kelley Southerland practices as a Guardian ad Litem in the 2nd Judicial District (Denver).
Why did you choose to practice child welfare law?
I was accepted into a late-opening slot in the Children’s Legal Advocacy Clinic at DU in my third year of law school. I did not know it at the time, but that clinic launched my legal career in child welfare and service to families. I remember sitting in the first few classes of the clinic thinking, “This is it. I’ve been looking for this work.” I have never looked back. From the beginning, the work has felt challenging and meaningful. As time goes on, I feel more and more passionate about the work we do in service to children and families. I’m serving my community in this work, and it is an honor to choose this work each day.
What has been the most rewarding moment for you while working with children and families in the child welfare system?
Something rewarding happens almost every day in this work, so identifying one standout moment is really impossible. It is very rewarding to watch older youth exit the system and forge their own ways very successfully with skills they learned during their case. The most successful youth I have worked with secured a tremendous scholarship for himself and created a permanent connection with the family that started out fostering him. He has beat every odd and is a gift to his created family and his community. We will be seeing more of him! Another standout moment was securing the delivery of a child that family had been hiding and arranging his delivery to safety, where he was eventually adopted.
Describe a challenge you face doing this work and your strategies to overcome it.
The biggest challenge I face continually is knowing the situation for children may not remain as we leave it. The risk we face in these cases that children will face harm again is real. I struggle balancing the need to send children home knowing the situation may be tenuous, at best, with making sure children’s rights to be raised in their families are strongly protected. Knowing for sure when the risk you identify is acceptable vs. unacceptable is impossible. You have to get very comfortable with uncertainty, and that is challenging.
What advice do you have for an attorney who is new to child welfare law?
My advice for an attorney starting out is to seek all the mentoring and support you can. We receive great training, but the training cannot completely prepare you for the issues that come up every day in this work. Each case is so different and presents its own sets of challenges that it is impossible to know how to handle all issues that arise. Having a mentor you can call is key to building your skill set and confidence. On a personal level, make sure you engage in simple pleasures and self-care often. This work is emotional and can be very difficult personally. Keep your life in balance to bring your best to your work.
What drives you to continue in this line of work and do you have any advice for seasoned attorney?
I have a passion for this work that I cannot explain, and it keeps me going. I get deep satisfaction from the work we do. No two days are the same. We do difficult law combined with advanced knowledge of trauma, addiction, and attachment issues. We appear in court and play on swing sets. We are in homes and courtrooms, often all on the same day. We travel this state and make connections with service providers and individuals from every area of the community. This work has truly made me feel like a citizen of my community and my state in ways I envision few jobs can. The community of seasoned attorneys in this work is also very supportive. My advice for seasoned attorneys is to stay engaged with the changes in the field and to keep learning about continually-developing litigation strategies. I’d also say the same thing about self-care to seasoned attorneys. The risk of burnout and weariness is high. Practicing good self-care is key to longevity and effectiveness.
Share a litigation strategy.
My biggest litigation strategy is building understanding through communication and collaboration. Collaboration can lead to moving the case forward very successfully. You build strong relationships and avenues of communication. Communication throughout the case often keeps contested litigation at bay for all the right reasons. However, if you have communicated effectively throughout a case, and still need to litigate, you have the information you need from hard work you did during the case. When you get to the point where litigation is necessary, typically all parties understand why litigation is now necessary and how you got there. Litigation is so much more effective when parties feel they have had a say in the process.