by: Alexandria (Ali) Hohman
I represented a young child from Haiti (HC) who came to the United States with her father and step-mother. HC made disclosures about being sexually abused potentially by her father. The stepmother called 911 and CPS the day of the disclosure. Stepmother also took numerous proactive actions to protect HC. Moreover, having an open dependency case jeopardized my client’s immigrations status in the United States. If she were to return to Haiti, we confirmed with her biological family she would enter restavek, or the domestic slavery system.
By the time I was appointed to represent HC, she had already been living with the stepmother for four months. The Department refused to budge to dismiss the case, even though the Department failed to provide the stepmother with any referrals and ignored the immigration consequences, because in the Department’s eyes it was not a 100% for sure HC would be denied status.
During this process I learned about two very powerful weapons in the dependency world: summary judgment and Ombudsman/Constituent Relations Unit. First, summary judgment is available to dependency practitioner because it is a civil proceeding. I moved for summary judgment based on the stepmother being found a de facto parent. By this time, the child was already home for over eight months. The trial court granted my motion!
Second, while heavily litigating this matter, I was also filing complaints with the Ombudsman and the Constituent Relations Unit. Each department is very different. Ombudsman does an independent investigation of whether the Department failed to follow its policy. Constituent Relations Unit reviews all complaints received in that department. They were forced to hold numerous meetings about this case.
I also learned that most Department workers have their supervisor listed with contact information if you google them. I called up the chain all the way to the undersecretary of Children’s Administration. My goal was to create enough internal pressure to demonstrate that this case is not worth their effort.
My advice in dependency is litigate because the trial court rarely knows or understands how the Department works. While you might not win the current motion, you painted a picture that will stick in the judicial officer’s mind. My other tip is never stop complaining. Dependency often lurks in the shadows of the law. Even other public defenders do not realize the insanity dependency practitioners see on a daily basis. File complaints! Be heard! Shine light on their incompetence!