Ruth Acheson practices as a Guardian ad Litem in the 12th Judicial District in dependency and neglect and juvenile delinquency cases. She mainly works in the San Luis Valley, which has some of the highest poverty rates in the state.
Why did you choose to practice child welfare law?
In some ways, I think child welfare law chose me. After a 25-year stint as a public defender, culminating in managing the Alamosa Regional Public Defender’s Office, I found myself wanting to engage in a totally different practice of law that positively impacted my community. A friend who had worked as a GAL for two decades recruited and mentored me. In retrospect, I think the work has given to me in so many unexpected ways, perhaps more than I have given to it.
What has been the most rewarding moment for you while working with children and families in the child welfare system?
Seeing the joy of a teen able to reunify with family/community was one. Keeping another off the witness stand in an incest case was another. Reconnecting with a young mother who told me that her experiences in “the system” were helping her to be a better parent.
Describe a challenge you face doing this work and your strategies to overcome it.
The local opioid epidemic has been disheartening, particularly when coupled with an influx of families who moved here believing they could “make a million” growing pot. The latter have no “roots” in the community and therefore little-to-no support system. They are also suspicious of, if not outright resistant to, offers of help. As to the opioid problem, even those who engage in treatment and appear successful frequently have serious relapses that endanger their children. I believe we are only addressing pieces of this puzzle, even in our family treatment court and with our local methadone clinic. The level of poverty and lack of opportunity are systemic problems that are difficult to adequately address. On a positive note, there are dedicated, determined people in local organizations working diligently to address these issues from a more global perspective. Networking with others and evaluating efficacy and availability while promoting new efforts is one of my strategies (e.g., using Medicaid transportation funding for those who must get to the methadone clinic daily, which could be over 100 miles roundtrip).
What advice do you have for an attorney who is new to child welfare law?
Get organized! From my perspective, the work we do involves high stakes and is too often unpredictable. Since we lack crystal balls, being organized, informed, and connected helps us respond without overreacting. The unpredictable happens and can impact the posture of the case. Being organized so we are informed and connected is critical to assessing options and developing/implementing plans that move towards permanency for children. Being calm in the eye of the storm, so to speak, can also help others deescalate and improve their decision-making, as well as their confidence in your judgment. Calendaring reminders of important data points and working with spread sheets helps me quickly see what needs my attention. Frontloading when I open a new case, so I calendar time to cover the initial work as quickly as possible means I don’t have to play catchup with the curveballs. The unpredictability of life is frustrating but also invigorating.
What drives you to continue in this line of work and do you have any advice for seasoned attorney?
This work forces me to stretch. Finding options and solutions to seemingly intractable problems/issues is demanding. I am humbled by the resilience and courage I see in children and have been forced to confront my own biases and accept my inability to ensure outcomes. Although life is unpredictable, I work hard not to be. Even when I am unsure where a case is heading (perhaps because a parent is struggling/failing), I work to provide accurate information about the process, what has been accomplished, and what will be important to me and others when making decisions. When there is disagreement, I listen and work to find ways to incorporate or adapt requests into recommendations. Transparency, kindness, not making promises I can’t keep, and keeping promises I make helps me build bridges. Staying abreast of research related to trauma, healing, addiction, and motivation/change assists me in making wiser choices.
Share a litigation strategy.
Perhaps the most meaningful for me was keeping a sibling group together when the department claimed there were no adoptive homes available that would accept three children, one with special needs. I filed a motion and subpoenaed department personnel and records to establish what efforts had been made to find a home for the children and endorsed an expert witness to testify about the impact separation would have on the children. The department caved. It took additional time and resources, but eventually they were adopted into the same family.