I had a juvenile court custody case some years ago in one of the local courts that turned out to be a unique and enlightening experience, so I decided to write this essay about it. Enough time has passed that there is virtually no possibility that any of the participants, other than the parties themselves, would remember the specifics of the case, even in the very unlikely event that they were to stumble across this post. I have changed the names and places in order to protect the parties’ privacy.
I had been representing a gentleman, whom I will call Mr. Smith, for nearly two years in an effort to help him get back custody of his son from the state. Mr. Smith lived outside the state of Utah. His son had been in the custody of one state or another for nearly five years. I will call the young man Rudy.
During my time representing Mr. Smith, I would go into court every three months or so for review hearings. Rudy would always be present, along with a caseworker from Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services, a Guardian ad Litem who represented Rudy, an assistant attorney general who was assigned to the case, and Rudy’s therapist.
Because of his scanty resources the father was only able to appear in court at the first and last review hearings. He came out to Utah one other time to visit his son and to take him shopping for school clothes.
Throughout the nearly two-year period I was on the case, I watched Rudy gradually grow from a young tween excited at the prospect of returning to live with his father, into a somewhat jaded young man resigned to a fate of living in state’s custody until adulthood, with seemingly bleak prospects for the immediate future.
In the beginning when Mr. Smith first showed up to court, Rudy was so excited at the possibility of returning to live with his father that he could scarcely contain his excitement and wore a huge smile on his face during the entire court hearing. But as time wore on and hearing after hearing was held without apparent progress, and with the state’s attorneys continually objecting to Rudy returning to his father, the young man began to gradually lose his excited and hopeful demeanor. Each court appearance he appeared more and more withdrawn, isolated and indifferent. He seemed listless, just going through the motions of showing up at the hearings, but always with a rather wistful look of resignation on his face.
The caseworker assigned to Rudy’s case had been studying for his master’s degree while also working full-time as a caseworker for the state. Regrettably, he did not seem terribly interested in the case, although I have no doubt he had the best of intentions. He was opposed to the father getting back custody of his son and never changed his mind throughout the case, despite Rudy’s obvious desire to live with his father. He could not seem to articulate any particularly strong reason for his position. He would always just emphasize the fact that the child was removed from the home years earlier because of the mother and father’s chaotic lifestyle at the time, and accordingly, in his opinion, there was no strong reason now to return Rudy to his father.
After I had been on the case for more than a year, the Judge ordered the caseworker to submit paperwork for an interstate home study of the father’s living situation. During the course of the case, the Judge had gradually begun to warm up to the idea that Rudy might be better off with his father after all, rather than to continue as a ward of the state.
Despite the Judge’s order, the caseworker delayed submitting the paperwork for the interstate home study. At a review hearing a few months later when the Court inquired about the status of the home study, the caseworker seemed a little embarrassed and said that he had not had a chance to submit the paperwork yet, but that he would get on it right away. Ultimately, however, he was replaced by a new caseworker who promptly submitted the paperwork.
The guardian ad litem, the attorney who represented Rudy throughout the case, was also consistently against sending him back to live with his father. She stated as her reasons that the father’s life had been chaotic in the past and that he had delayed a long time in petitioning the Court to return his son to his care. However, as the alleged history became increasingly remote, and the father continued to demonstrate his sincere interest in being reunited with his son, these reasons seemed increasingly less persuasive to me, although again, I do not doubt the guardian’s best intentions.
Although the guardian ad litem was no doubt doing her best to protect Rudy, by the time I got on the case, the historical facts had already begun to fade from the memories of the participants involved in the case. The state’s attorney and guardian ad litem would admit in Court that they had forgotten the specific reasons why Rudy had entered state’s custody in the first place. It was something that had happened long ago in some mid-western or northwestern state or another, the guardian would say, and it had ultimately resulted in Utah obtaining custody of Rudy a few years back. The thinking was that there had been good reasons for the state to assume custody back then and thus there were probably still good reasons now. This group think seemed to permeate the case at each hearing.
The case file was so thick and full of contradictory information that no one seemed to remember what the father had done to lose custody of Rudy to begin with. The mother was never a part of the picture after Rudy entered state’s custody, and her life apparently continued to be too chaotic for her to be actively involved in his life.
But by the time I began representing Rudy’s father, he had been holding a consistent full-time job, had obtained a modest but nice apartment, and had maintained a stable lifestyle for several years running. Many of the problems he had experienced in the past seemed attributable to his life with the boy’s mother, whom everyone agreed was not currently an appropriate caregiver.
Throughout the case, at each hearing, the state’s attorney would stand up and re-state his opposition to returning the boy to live with his father. Seemingly weary of the case, as time went on he would offer only cursory reasons for his ongoing position, citing to the historical record in a case file many inches thick, as well as a long period of absence by the father. After many hearings, this became a rote recitation.
After a hearing one spring, someone noted that a case worker in the state of the father’s residence had started the interstate home study after finally receiving the paperwork from the Utah caseworker. The out-of-state caseworker had then visited the father’s home and interviewed him and some of his relatives. The home study had initially looked very promising. The caseworker had many positive things to say in her preliminary written report. She wrote about the possibilities of Rudy going to live with his father, noting that his father loves him, could provide for him financially, and could give him a suitable and loving home in which he would have the support of many relatives and extend family nearby. This seemed to be an exciting and promising breakthrough in the case.
However, ultimately the out-of-state caseworker concluded that she could not endorse the child coming to live with his father, a conclusion she verbally relayed to the Utah caseworker. The reasons for this were never clearly stated and we never received a final written report. The disappointment was tangible.
We had another hearing late in the summer of that year, by which time Rudy had grown into a young man old enough to get his driver’s license. It looked as if this hearing would be his last opportunity to present his case to return to live with his father before reaching adulthood.
The Judge opened the hearing by stating that we had reached a crossroads in Rudy’s case and indeed, in his young life. He said he would not spend any more time in preliminary remarks but instead, wished to immediately obtain everyone’s input on how we should proceed with Rudy’s case.
There were really only two possibilities at this point, he continued. One, Rudy would remain in state’s custody in a boy’s home until he turned eighteen. Or, Rudy could return to live with his father, but the Judge would need powerful reasons to elect the latter option.
Every home in which Rudy had ever been placed had ultimately turned out poorly. He would run away, or the caregivers would claim that they could no longer handle him, or he would fail to go to school, or he would get into trouble at school. Because of this misbehavior, he had ended up in detention more than once. He had then been placed in the boy’s home.
The state’s attorney went first, and stated as usual that the government could not recommend that Rudy be returned to live with his father under the current circumstances.
The guardian ad litem took her turn and stated essentially the same thing. She said that she could not endorse Rudy living with his father until she had seen a written report outlining the reasons why the out-of-state caseworker was against the placement. This was disappointing to me because it was clear that no such written report was forthcoming.
The boy’s counselor then took her turn. She proved to be Rudy’s best advocate in Court that day; and indeed, his only advocate other than me, Rudy’s father, and Rudy himself. She had worked with Rudy for the past several years and had been almost like a surrogate mother to him. She knew him better than anyone else in the courtroom besides his father. She argued passionately that Rudy needed to return to live with his father. He needed the stabilizing influence of a male role model who loved him more than anyone else and could provide for him better than anyone else.
She said that the father had done everything that had been asked of him and then some, and that he had been a positive influence in the boy’s life, indeed one of the only consistently positive influences. He had spoken with his son by telephone almost daily for more than a year while the case slowly wove its way through the court system, and had always reinforced positive behaviors and discouraged negative behaviors in his son. He had encouraged Rudy to turn himself in when he had run away from a placement where he claimed to have been mistreated by one of the foster parents. She said that Rudy was now stagnating in state’s custody and had been for some time. She repeated her position that he needed to go live with his father who loved him so much.
The Judge then gave Rudy a chance to speak, first noting that he had received a touching letter from Rudy before the hearing, requesting the chance to go and live with his father.
Rudy stood up and began talking on his own behalf. He had the same somewhat resigned look on his face that he had worn for nearly a year. He said that he wanted so much to go live with his father. He said he knew there would be slip ups, and that not everything would be picture perfect, but that he was committed to being on his best behavior and wanted more than anything to live with his dad.
The Judge gave me the last chance to advocate for the father and son’s reunification. I did so as best I could, knowing that there was at best a 50/50 chance that the Judge would allow this to happen.
After hearing from all the parties, the Judge said that he was ready to issue his ruling. He reached down under his desk and brought up a ten- inch thick file, laying it on top of his desk for all to see. He said he did not mean to be dramatic but that the huge file in front of him represented everything that had occurred in Rudy’s case over the past several years. It reflected all the problems, setbacks, progress, hopes, dreams, heartaches, successes, failures, excitements, disappointments, good behaviors, bad behaviors, and ups and downs in Rudy’s life over the past several years.
He paused for a moment. He then said that after stewing over the case for many months he had come to a conclusion. He said that there was one thread missing throughout that entire ten-inch thick file. That one missing thread was a consistent, loving caregiver to provide Rudy a permanent home. He said that he had concluded that the only person who could give Rudy that permanent, loving home that he craved so much was his father.
The Judge’s words gave Rudy and his father the first glimmer of hope that they had had in more than a year during the agonizingly slow progression of the case through the court system. Rudy’s face began to lighten up as he eagerly awaited the Judge’s long-anticipated ruling. It was almost as if the clouds were beginning to break and a tiny ray of sunlight was beginning to beam in his life for the first time in many months, if not years.
The Judge then issued his ruling. He said that because of the factors he had just recited that he was terminating juvenile court jurisdiction immediately and awarding permanent custody of Rudy to his father.
Everyone in the courtroom sat in stunned silence for a few moments. The father, who was seated next to me, could barely contain his emotions, as tears streamed down his cheeks. Finally, he mustered the words, spoken barely above a whisper: “God bless you, your honor. God bless you.”
Rudy was ecstatic. The smile that had been gone from his face for so long returned again and he made a small pumping gesture with his fist as he mouthed the word “yes”.
The Judge remained business-like and immediately began preparing for the next case, telling us that we could be excused and that he wished everyone the very best of luck. I thanked the Judge and we all exited the courtroom together, still trying to absorb what had just happened.
Outside of the courtroom in the hallway, Rudy’s caseworker and counselor surrounded him and his father as they embraced each other for the first time in months. The counselor and caseworker both said they could hardly believe what had just happened and that they had never seen anything quite like it before.
I shook hands with Rudy and his father and wished them well, knowing that it was probably the last time I would ever see them. I walked away quietly, leaving them to make their plans for a renewed life together.
I hope things have turned out well for Rudy and his father. No doubt there have been many obstacles and disappointments along the way, but I am equally certain that there have been just as many joys and successes for them. I believe there are wonderful prospects and a bright future in store for Rudy if he will apply himself to be the very best he can be, with the loving encouragement and support of his father and extended family.
But regardless of the outcome, in my book there emerged from the courtroom that day one true hero above all others. That was the Judge who had the silent but resolute courage, even against the state’s recommendations, to reunite a hopeful young man with his loving father.
This material should not be construed as legal advice for any particular fact situation, but is intended for general informational purposes only. For advice specific to any individual situation, an experienced attorney should be contacted.