A Day in the Life: Public Defender

It is 8:00 a.m. as I pull into a parking space at the juvenile courthouse.  I quickly grab the three files from the passenger seat and hurry into the courthouse. I see my first client sitting alone on the hard plastic chairs just inside the door.  She is a slender built, eighteen year-old, whose eyes are red from crying. I approach her and introduce myself. We have spoken on the phone but this is our first meeting.

She hastily asks if her son is coming home today. Her seven day old son, Caleb, was removed from her custody, twenty-four hours after he was born.  Mother and Caleb tested positive for an illegal substance.  She does not know where Caleb is or who is taking care of him, all she knows is he is not with her.

I ask her if she has found a place to live that would be suitable for her child.  Prior to giving birth, she was “couch surfing.” She had left her mother’s home at the request of her mother’s new boyfriend.  She responds that she is staying with her aunt, Caleb could stay there too. I ask if this was the same aunt who has a past DCS case.  Tears began to stream down her face as she nods her head yes.  I tell her we need to keep looking.

The mediator approaches to usher us into a small room with the attorney general, the DCS case manager and Caleb’s guardian ad litem to discuss services for mother and parenting time.  Mother is willing to do anything to regain custody of Caleb, and immediately agrees to drug treatment and testing.  Next the attorney general and I engage in a disagreement over visitation.  Based on resource constraints, DCS is offering mother two hours, twice a week to bond with her son.  Four hours a week is insufficient, but the state will not cede.  I look at my client, the tears are streaming again.  The mediation concludes. I bid mother a quick good bye and encourage her to stay strong.

Next, I begin searching for my second client, a thirty-five year old father whose children are in care because he and their mother were unable to control their tempers which led to domestic violence.  DCS also found their home in deplorable condition.  Father sees me and hurries towards me.  He is anxious about the pending hearing.  At my request, the hearing was set to determine whether the children could return to father’s custody.  Father is sure that the judge is going to deny the request.  I ask him if his counselor and parent aide are present.  He nods his head and points.

I walk over to the man and woman that father pointed to.  They confirm that father is doing well in their respective programs and do not have concerns with the children being returned to his custody.  We quickly go over their testimony before the bailiff calls us into the courtroom.  The counselor, parent aide and father testify regarding the progress he has made in counseling and his ability to create a safe environment for his children.  At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge orders his three children home.  He excitedly asks the court, “When can I pick them up?”  The judge smiles and states, they will be home by dinner.  He grabs my hand, utters a quick thank you and rushes over to the case manager to arrange his kids’ homecoming.

My final case of the morning is a pre-trial conference on a severance.  I search the courthouse for my client, she is not present.  I wondered if she would appear since she had stopped participating in services and visits once the case plan was changed to severance and her phone has been turned off.  The court calls the case and mother’s rights are severed, it is difficult for me to witness the end of a family. I briefly wonder what caused her to lose all hope before realizing that I only have an hour to prepare for this afternoon’s events.  I hurry out of the court house and back to my car.


Chris Phillis




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