Thursday, July 3, 2008

Does D.A. stand for Disingenuous Always?

Readers of this Blog know there's been considerable controversy in Kansas lately concerning comments made by the Secretary of the State Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services, Don Jordan. He accused the District Attorney's office in the state's largest county, Sedgwick, of bullying, yelling at, screaming at, cussing at, and threatening SRS caseworkers in order to get them to hype the allegations against families contained in affidavits presented to the court. When Jordan found out his comments would become public he begged forgiveness from the D.A. and claimed he'd merely been pandering to the group he was meeting with, Citizens for Change.

The comments prompted another Kansas group, Sunflower Community Action to protest at the home of the District Attorney, Nola Foulston. Some of the protestors became loud and nasty – and other protestors, to their considerable credit, calmed them down.

But about a month later, when protestors turned up at a campaign event for Foulston, the D.A. allegedly showed no such restraint, reportedly cursing at the protest leader. Later, Foulston invited some of the parents to meet with her – but even in the invitation, she couldn't resist a sarcastic aside about the earlier protests. All this is recounted in a story in today's Wichita Eagle.

After reading the story, I don't know which is more appalling, Foulston's disingenuousness or her immaturity.

In essence, her response to every concern raised by these anguished mothers boils down to: "Not my problem." She repeatedly tells the mothers to go get better representation from their lawyers. But it's not as if these mothers are able to choose their lawyers and give them fat retainers.

When you're indigent you have to take the lawyer you're assigned. And all over the country that's going to be either:

--A grossly overwhelmed public defender with no time to deal seriously with the case.
--A grossly overwhelmed lawyer from a firm with which the court has a contract, with no time to deal seriously with the case.
--A grossly overwhelmed lawyer who takes these cases on the side to make a few extra bucks, and has neither the time nor the inclination to deal seriously with the case.
--A solo practitioner operating out of his briefcase who needs a huge volume of these low-paying cases to make ends meet and so will have neither… well, you get the idea.

A crucial issue raised by the mothers was inaccurate information in petitions presented to judges at the first court hearing after their children had been taken. At this hearing, judges must decide whether to approve the removal after-the-fact. Of course they almost always do.

The first thing Foulston did was essentially admit that often the petitions are inaccurate. She told the mothers that because there supposedly is not enough time to draw them up, they often contain "boilerplate" paragraphs which may not be accurate representations of a specific case. But in Kansas, prosecutors have 72 hours before that first hearing, plenty of time for an assistant district attorney to review a case and write up an accurate petition dealing with the specific circumstances of that case. There is no excuse for inaccurate "boilerplate" paragraphs – and no excuse for judges accepting petitions that contain such paragraphs. After all, we know from Don Jordan that the assistant district attorneys have plenty of time to, shall we say, talk the case over with SRS workers before the hearing.

Foulston says all the responsibility rests with these terrified overwhelmed birth parents. They're supposed to spot the errors and demand that their court-appointed lawyers challenge them. But aside from all the problems noted above, there's another: Parents may not even meet their lawyer until minutes before, or sometimes after the first hearing – so how in the world can they challenge what's in the petitions at that hearing?

Of course there are exceptions, dedicated self-sacrificing attorneys and those who work for legal aid and legal services agencies which may take a small number of cases. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, a parent can walk into court with a cardboard cutout of a man in a three-piece suit and get about as much representation as impoverished parents get in these cases. Nola Foulston knows it. And no one in Kansas is in a better position to change it if she wants to.

Imagine what power it would have if Nola Foulston herself went to Topeka and demanded that the legislature fund an institutional provider of defense counsel for indigent families, counsel with a passion for the job, low caseloads, and support staff to challenge the boilerplate and devise their own alternative case plans – plans that would give families what they really need instead of endless hoops to jump through.

They have such a program in many counties in Washington State. (It's described in detail in NCCPR's Kansas report). And the Washington State Attorney General's office, which does what D.A.'s do in Kansas in these cases, strongly supports it. New York City is setting up such programs as well – with the strong support of the City's child welfare agency, the Administration for Children's Services.

That's because Nola Foulston's counterparts in these communities know it's not a matter of getting "bad parents" off – rather, it gets cases that don't need to be in court out of the system quickly, giving everyone more time to focus on children in real danger. It gets families the help they really need so children don't have to endure the agony of needless foster care. And when parents really are partially at fault, a good lawyer can persuade a parent to do what she needs to do while demanding the help she needs to do it.

We'll know that Nola Foulston is serious about justice for children when she is ready to demand enough funding to provide real justice for families.

The other issue here is maturity. If anyone has cause to lose their temper it is someone who is in anguish over the fate of her children, taken from her and placed in the chaos of foster care. If anyone should be able to keep her temper under control, even when provoked, it's someone with all the power of law enforcement behind her who also is a community leader charged with setting an example. Yet the Eagle story makes clear that it was one such parent, Annette Jones, who displayed calm and maturity throughout, acknowledging the misbehavior of some of her own fellow protestors, while Foulston sank to sarcastic asides in her invitation to the meeting, and even, reportedly, to shouting curses at a protest leader at another event. "Cussing," by the way, is one of the things Don Jordan said the assistant district attorneys do when they bully his caseworkers. If that is, indeed, happening, could they be learning by example?

In the story, Foulston is quoted telling the parents that "It is not my purpose to fly over Sedgwick County on a broom, removing children from their families." But when you've got the full power of the police behind you and judges who will rubber stamp anything, who needs a broom?