New state agency aims to help families in child welfare cases

Office of Family Representation aims to provide consistency for parents and kids

By: - March 15, 2022 5:00 am

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As a child, Alyssa Davis was in and out of courtrooms — so many, she said, that she stopped keeping track after around 30 appearances.

She grew up in state foster care, “from zero to 18-years-old,” and was routinely meeting a different attorney representing her in a case five minutes before they saw the judge.

Her mother struggled to maintain custody, and eventually, Davis was adopted by a woman in Santa Fe. That ended due to abuse, she said.

Davis, now 24, recalled one court appearance where she met a new lawyer to discuss the case and her goals moving forward while her foster mother was in the room.

“She was literally staring me down the entire time. Only I would feel that look. So anyone else in the room would be like, ‘She’s looking at her waiting for her to talk.’ No, that look was like, if I say anything I’m gonna get seriously hurt when I get home,” Davis said.

Those experiences informed her testimony before state lawmakers, who listened and then passed a law during the recent 30-day legislative session creating the Office of Family Representation and Advocacy. It will provide lawyers for children and parents engaged in child welfare cases or foster care.

“It was frustrating not having that attorney to actually spend time with me before court and actually go over my goals or what I want to do with my life,” she said, “Instead of just having me survive in a system until I was 18 and then figure it out on my own.”

Consistency in a courtroom for people who are struggling with addiction or for children who might not know where they will sleep that night is part of the mission for the new office that was created as an executive agency, said state Supreme Court Justice Briana Zamora.

Eventually, I just backed away. But my shame and guilt had a lot to do with it as well. I felt as though, during that time, I didn't have a voice, because I knew that I was an addict. I knew what I had done to my kids. I knew where I was heading to. I knew I was heading to incarceration.

– Queva Hubbard, mother

“I want each and every party to have good quality representation, because that means I’m getting the best, most informative presentation and that means I’m going to make the best, most informed decision and that’s what the public deserves, especially when it’s involving children,” Zamora said.

The legislation signed last week by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was built from a 2019 Senate Joint Memorial that created the Family Representation Task Force. Their objective was to design new models for how to give New Mexicans in the foster care system high-quality legal representation.

The task force met last Friday, triumphant in the creation of the new office. And while the moment was jovial, the work to get everything together so attorneys can be ready to serve clients within nine months shadowed the legislative victory celebration.

First, the office will need to hire a director and then five regional managers to operate statewide. Then, 13 people with experience in family law, such as attorneys and judges, will be appointed to an oversight commission. Community members with lived experience, like Davis, will also be part of the commission.

From there, the office must build a team of lawyers to help with anything that goes before a judge in children’s court, including custody hearings and status conferences to check the progress of parents working through counseling or treatment programs that can help them get back to their kids.

Zamora is part of the task force and said a vital part of the first phase will include identifying attorneys who can not only represent families in court but people who will also serve as governing members in the office.

It was frustrating not having that attorney to actually spend time with me before court and actually go over my goals or what I want to do with my life.

– Alyssa Davis

Not only is consistency key for families, but it can also alleviate delays in cases that clog up judicial calendars.

“If the attorneys are better prepared, if the attorneys who represent children and families have the resources they need — if they have their own social workers, their own caseworkers, their own navigators, their own peer mentors available — I think that will also expedite matters,” she said.

Zamora said the office will likely have to contract with attorneys in order to meet the mission of having five regional offices that serve people statewide, eventually building a pool of lawyers who are also paid enough to match their workload.

“One thing we’re hoping to do with this office — and I don’t see how it wouldn’t happen — is increase the pay,” Zamora said. “These are like the public defenders. These attorneys currently are some of the lowest paid attorneys, and by increasing pay for these attorneys, I think that will help as well with the high turnover you see.”

Consistent representation in court is something Queva Hubbard said would have helped her while struggling to keep up with the demands of the judicial system and figuring out treatment for substance abuse issues. Hubbard lost custody of her kids in 2011, she said, and eventually served jail time.

“I’m not gonna blame it on the system,” Hubbard said. “But I will say that the system did not support me.”

Hubbard said she gave up, and kept going down the path that led to losing custody rights and jail time.

“Eventually, I just backed away. But my shame and guilt had a lot to do with it as well. I felt as though, during that time, I didn’t have a voice, because I knew that I was an addict. I knew what I had done to my kids. I knew where I was heading to. I knew I was heading to incarceration,” she said. “I only met with my attorney like one or two times, it was prior to court, and it was just like, ‘OK, this is what it is,’ It was so fast. The information that was given to me was so fast. I wasn’t even able to process it.”

When she got out, she was refocused with help from counseling services. But she still felt intimidated, she said, as she tried to restore her parental rights in court. This was, after all, the same system that she’d only experienced when it was time to punish her for criminal allegations.

Hubbard had to figure out how to navigate the system on her own, she said, and is now reunited with her kids. She’s also part of the coalition that made the Office of Family Representation and Advocacy a reality.

If the attorneys are better prepared, if the attorneys who represent children and families have the resources they need — if they have their own social workers, their own caseworkers, their own navigators, their own peer mentors available — I think that will also expedite matters.

– Briana Zamora, New Mexico Supreme Court Justice

While the office will focus primarily on legal representation, it must also connect families to services such as parent advocates, social workers and counseling services.

“Everybody has their role defined,” Hubbard said. For people who are part of cases, those roles will be clear, she added.

“I know when coming from a legal standpoint, they’re fighting for my family. I know coming from a social worker standpoint, she’s clinically going to give me her best advice and my parent advocate is there, because she’s been through it, so she sees when I’m emotional,” Hubbard said.

Hubbard’s history propelled her toward a path to help others. She is optimistic, she said, that the new office will make it easier for people that simply do not know what to do when the stakes are high before a powerful entity like the courts.

“I want to say I’m proud of myself, but I don’t want to pat myself on the back until I know every parent in New Mexico has proper legal representation,” she said. “Then once that happens, you know, I’ll wave the white flag and I may just go lay down and rest.”

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Most recently he covered Indigenous affairs with New Mexico In Depth. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.

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