I confess: I am among those who tune into NBC faithfully on Tuesday nights to watch This Is Us. It is a television drama involving triplets and their complicated relationships with each other and with their parents. At 8:00 pm on Tuesday nights I make sure my children are asleep. I put on my coziest pajamas. I stir the honey in my herbal tea. And I watch.
This show markets itself as a tear inducing drama-fest. One particular story line hit me firmly in my bleeding heart and I am still reeling from it months later: Randall’s relationship with his foster daughter, Deja. Randall was an adopted infant who wants to “give back” to honor his adoptive parents. He chooses to do so by providing a safe, loving home to a foster child. His family takes in 12-year-old Deja, whose custodial parent is incarcerated. After Deja has lived with them for several months the entire family is smitten with her. Then all are abruptly notified that charges against Deja’s mother are dropped and Deja’s exit from their home will be in short order. Randall struggles with having to turn over care of this beloved young woman to her biological mother, who he hardly knows and whose past neglect of Deja triggers his protective instincts. Ultimately, he realizes that his love for Deja compels him to support Deja’s wish to return to her mother’s house, no matter how strongly he feels that he can provide a better home for her.
I sensed a gasp around the country as viewers thought, “What?! He gave in? Her mother was just in jail! How can he feel that way?!”
My reaction was different. I thought, “The writers of this show get it. Finally. Evidence that others actually get it!”
I represent parents embroiled in Child Protection matters. Most of my clients have had their children removed from their households as a result of parental neglect. A handful are accused of malicious punishment or a lesser form of abuse. My work currently spans five counties around the metro. When I explain to others that I am a child protection attorney their faces light up and I receive praise for “protecting children.” If the conversation continues and it is revealed that I represent parents, validating smiles shift to suspicious leers. “How can you represent people who neglect their children?” some ask. Others say, “Aren’t you afraid of what will happen if the kids actually go back to the parents?”
I have always been fascinated with the parent/child relationship. I recognize it as something sacred and common to all cultures in every place. No matter where you go, anywhere on the Earth, you will find parents and children who love each other. You will find that those children do not just love their parents. They need them. They need THEIR parents. Loving, centered adults are able to do tremendous good in the lives of children regardless of how a relationship is defined. But there is something special and irreplaceable when a child has parents.
That is why Deja, who admits that her mother messes up a lot, still wants to live with her. Deja is a fictional but accurate representation of what is in the hearts of countless children who are living in foster care. No matter how flawed parents are, their children yearn for them. That is why Minnesota law makes it the obligation of the government to make reasonable efforts to prevent out of home placement. If out of home placement is ordered, then the government is obligated to take reasonable efforts to reunify families. Parents are given case plans intended to help them become healthy and skilled so that their children will be safe living with them, along with ample time to complete the case plans in hopes of reunification.
When I go to Child Protection court I do not see myself as defending acts that are indefensible. I never justify neglect or abuse. I assist the court’s efforts in protecting the sacred, irreplaceable relationship that children have with their parents.
I do this because the well-being of children is inextricably entwined with the well-being of their parents. By helping parents, I help children. My friends and neighbors are correct when they describe my work as “protecting kids.” The best way to protect kids is to help and support the big people that kids need and love.
I have an important job.