Theo practices in the 13th Judicial District in Colorado.
Why did you choose to practice child welfare law?
I’m not sure if I chose child welfare law, or it chose me. I worked through law school as an Emergency Medical Technician, where my initial exposure to children and families in crisis was intense and visceral, but always brief. In the ER, children were treated for a traumatic injury, ignored medical conditions, or acute mental health issues, and then released. The questions were always the same: “how do you prevent such tragedies?” and “who helps them once they leave?” The answers were elusive . . . looking back, I regret not looking for them sooner. It took 10 years, but as an attorney with a general practice in the wilds of Eastern Colorado, I began taking GAL appointments before OCR came into being, comfortable with a base knowledge of the Children’s Code, but amazed by the level of expertise needed in areas beyond law to truly make a difference in the life of a child. I wanted to know more. I felt like I could do more. A late realization, but no less impactful.
What has been the most rewarding moment for you while working with children and families in the dependency and neglect system?
I’m not sure I can say there was ever a kind of denouement, where everything came together for me in any one case. The most rewarding experiences, however, usually involve a child or a family who’ve proven to themselves they can succeed without caseworkers hounding them or help from treatment providers. Maybe the moment comes months, or even years, after a case closes. After a case worker pours their sweat and tears into a treatment plan, after a child struggles then succeeds in a residential treatment program, and after a judge and respondents’ counsel “gently” prod a parent to work towards an end, the look of both gratification and self-accomplishment in a child or a parent’s face is one of the most satisfying parts of my practice.
Describe a challenge you face doing this work and your strategies to overcome it.
The children whose best interests we represent are usually caught somewhere between hope and chaos. To help them find their way out of that impossible predicament; to gather the best information and paint the best picture for a court requires a relationship between a GAL and child based on trust. Building that trust with a child over the short time a case is typically open is the greatest challenge. Getting them to believe you’re truly interested in their lives, their music, their friends, their likes and dislikes, is a critical first step. Remembering and sharing those things with them over time is next. Empty promises degrade that trust, so giving them honest answers to hard questions, while sometimes hard to swallow, gets them to look at you rather than through you. If you can get to that point where you’re no longer a window and instead a mirror, your words and actions can begin to have an effect.
What advice do you have for an attorney who is new to child welfare law?
As lawyers we’re taught that advocacy means action, and that a strong, vocal presence is often the key to successfully advocating for your client. Children are different. Choose your advice and your opinions carefully and learn to get a point across to them in as few words as possible. The less they hear from you the more they hear from themselves. The greatest skill you can bring to child welfare law is the ability to connect a child to themselves, and at the same time keep caregivers, caseworkers and treatment providers connected to the child. Keeping adults focused on a child is mostly linear and instinctive. With children it’s more daunting. If you can figure out how to shine a pinpoint of light on the immense breadth and depth of a child’s needs, both in and out of the courtroom, you’ll improve outcomes, feel you’ve changed a life for the better, and maybe smile a little more than your average attorney.
What drives you to continue in this line of work and do you have any advice for a seasoned attorney?
The artist Degas was famous for his paintings of ballerinas—but he never showed them performing. His paintings were of them practicing, because he saw beauty more in the effort than in the final production on stage. As Guardians ad litem, new and seasoned alike, if we can find some beauty in trying to find perfect solutions in an imperfect world, in the end, regardless of the outcome, our work will be worth the effort, and children’s lives will be better for it.