Holding Court At The Bottom

Sheila Tone is a coblogger of mine over at Hit Coffee. Despite the fact that she doesn’t post very often, a not-insignificant part of my readership is there to read her and not me. She’s a family services lawyer that often serves the lower echelon of society and periodically writes about her work. She wrote a post the other day that got some attention, so I thought I would like to it here. It’s an open-letter to a client who is likely to permanently lose his kids to foster care:

In six months, dad, you’re probably going to lose your kids for good. I think you do suspect this, but won’t admit it to yourself. And you don’t want me to tell you why. They’ve been gone a year already, yet you don’t really want to know why.

I can tell this because you make it extremely unpleasant to interact with you. That is what scammers do. When you’re in a situation where you have some power, this may be very effective. It’s called bullying. People want to avoid the conflict, so maybe they get nervous and don’t scrutinize you appropriately, and your bad check or stolen credit card is accepted. Or maybe they give you the refund you want, even without the required receipt, so you’ll go away. But you are not in a one-on-one conflict. Your adversaries are not your equals, and they have very little duty toward you. You are fighting a court and a powerful government agency, backed closely by the police. Your arguments are worth nothing against that. And I’m your only friend in the fight. You shouldn’t want to make me avoid you.

Yet you make it miserable to talk with you, so I do the minimum. I’m just your lawyer; all I have to do is give you adequate legal advice and make sure you don’t get screwed legally. You decide what to do with that. Confronting you with stuff about yourself that you don’t want to hear, well, that goes beyond adequate. I didn’t have the energy or the time yesterday to deal with you arguing and yelling at me for an hour, which is the minimum it would have taken to have even a small chance of getting this through to you. So I’m in that gray area where I know I did my job, butI still feel bad because I know you’ll still fail. I don’t like my clients to lose, even when they’re assholes.

And that is the number one reason why the social worker will not recommend you getting your kids back and the court will follow that recommendation, regardless of what your lawyer argues at trial, regardless of what complaints about the system you have when you take the stand against your lawyer’s advice and ramble on over sustained objections. ( “Motion to strike after ‘Yes.’” “Sustained. SUSTAINED. That means the witness needs to STOP TALKING.” Bailiff approaches menacingly.)

One of the ongoing themes of Sheila’s work-related commentary involves a Dalrymplesque look at the lifestyles and habits of the poor. The degree to which they are confronted with a complex society that they are ill-equipped to navigate through. The degree to which they are their own worst enemies.

Before moving to where we are presently, my wife’s clientele was not all that different from Sheila’s. Residencies and Fellowships often focus on the underserved and those that otherwise can’t afford care. Struggling whites in the Mountain West, immigrants in the Southwest, and low-income urban whites and blacks in the Pacific Northwest. Her other gig was on a reservation. None of these groups were exactly the same, but with the exception of the Mormons in the first group and a lot of the second, one of the biggest things to overcome was often the patient himself or herself. The degree to which they would fall off the wall and expect someone else to be able to put them back together again.

Not that I can talk, of course. I smoke, I drink five soft drinks a day, and I avoid routine medical care (irony of ironies). But even I stopped smoking when I got pneumonia. I eat better when I’m sick to the stomach. I successfully lost weight. I avoid physical hazards. I find a way to stop scratching when I bleed. When I need to take care of myself, I know how. I don’t mean “someone told me how” (few aren’t at least told that things are bad), but I know because, coming from a stable environment, I can more easily pick out those things that are wrong, correct them, and internalize the cause-effect. I don’t come from an environment where I am behind no matter what I do.

That strikes me as significant.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. A self-defeating patient (or client) is a crushing but common reality for any profession when you deal with real human need. It’s so, so easy for me to look at the situations patients (or, more accurately, their parents) find themselves in and spot the innumerable ways they made things worse, or got themselves into the trouble they’re currently facing. And I know that nothing — no amount of time, no amount of effort, no amount of sincere desire to help them — will make a jot of difference.

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