8. Pretrial Caseworker Preparation
In a judicial proceeding, the caseworker may be the primary source of information about the family involved. Therefore, the caseworker must be sure to document accurately the services provided to the family, visits and interviews conducted, and the response of family members to agency efforts. Since not all information is allowed for use in court (e.g., opinions, speculation, conclusions), the caseworker should take great pains to record his/her observations in factual rather than conclusory terms.
For example, when describing a home visit, the caseworker should not write "the child was neglected," or even "the house was messy." Instead, he/she should describe what he/she saw, heard and smelled: "I found the child dressed only in a T-shirt. She was extremely dirty and foul-smelling. The house was not heated and was infested with cockroaches. The cupboards and refrigerator were empty. In the kitchen, garbage overflowed from the trash can onto the floor and was swarming with roaches and flies." This type of documentation is not only more likely to be admitted into evidence by a judge, but is also more persuasive than a mere conclusory statement.
Because the caseworker has access to so much information about the family, he/she is a crucial witness at trial. While the prospect of preparing for trial may be frightening, a thorough review of the family's case record and a conference with the agency's attorney is usually sufficient to prepare a witness to testify. It is up to the attorney to advise the caseworker of what to expect in court and to answer his/her questions. The caseworker and the attorney should review the caseworker's testimony together, which will allow any confusion or problems to be addressed before trial.
During the caseworker's involvement in any given case, he/she will come into contact with a number of lawyers and sometimes lay advocates. Communication and cooperation between the caseworker and the agency attorney are important throughout the legal process, including deciding whether to go to court, drafting the petition, preparing to testify, and evaluating the dispositional options. Both lawyers and caseworkers should keep in mind the following tips for maintaining a healthy working relationship:
- Be accessible and interact regularly. For example:
- return phone calls promptly;
- schedule regular visits by the attorney to the agency offices (if the attorney works "in-house," he/she could even set aside a few minutes each day to visit caseworkers' offices to talk informally); and
- establish a system to designate at least one attorney to be available each day to handle caseworker questions.
- Define attorney and caseworker roles clearly.
- Encourage attorney participation in agency activities such as case conferences and foster care reviews.
- Establish guidelines for decision making and procedures for resolving disagreements between caseworkers and attorneys.
- Provide an opportunity for caseworkers to evaluate attorney performance.70
The caseworker may also be consulted by the child's attorney, guardian ad litem, and/or court appointed special advocate, if they have been appointed, as part of their fact gathering process. He/she may also be called upon to consult with potential expert witnesses and members of a multidisciplinary child protection team.
Additionally, the caseworker may have to explain the court process to the child and the family. What is often a mystifying process, even to those who are familiar with it, may seem overwhelming to family members who are personally involved. It is important for the caseworker to be familiar with the process and procedures of a child protection legal proceeding. This will help the family and the child understand what has taken place and know what to expect.
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