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The Board of Legal Specialization launched a new specialty in child welfare law late last year. The child welfare law specialty is an important addition to the program and a way in which the State Bar can recognize lawyers who devote their careers to helping children in difficult or harmful circumstances. The initial group of board certified specialists included the specialty committee members, who wrote and graded the first exam, and a group of seasoned practitioners who agreed to complete the BETA exam process and provide feedback for improvement. The following are some of their thoughts on how this certification will impact the practice of child welfare law.

Q: How will having a child welfare law specialty in NC will benefit the public?

Sara DePasquale: Child welfare proceedings, which are abuse, neglect, dependency, and termination of parental rights actions, are unique legal actions. They involve the government’s intervention with a family. North Carolina’s child welfare laws are designed to provide a balance between the government’s interests of protecting children and the constitutional rights of parents and children with a recognition that family autonomy and preservation are stated values and objectives. The cases are complex and involve multiple hearings, multiple parties, different procedures, different evidentiary standards, and numerous state and federal laws. The laws in this field are constantly changing. It is crucial that the legal professionals involved in these cases have a true understanding and knowledge of these laws to ensure that not only are the families involved in the child welfare system protected, but that the justice system fulfills the purpose of North Carolina’s Juvenile Code as it applies to these families. Ultimately, that benefits the citizens of North Carolina.

Deana Fleming: Attorneys working in this area of law are serving the public in one capacity or another. The State Bar recognizing child welfare law as a specialty shows the public the importance of families and children within the legal system.

Matt McKay: At any given time over the last few years, North Carolina has had about 15,000 children in foster care, and each one is a juvenile court case. As an attorney for these children, I consider the predicament of each of these kids to be, at some level, a daily-recurring tragedy. Our juvenile court system is tasked with trying to rebuild for these children a life that they deserve but do not have. Creation of the child welfare law specialty certification advances our juvenile court system by acknowledging and cultivating a level of proficiency in a field that literally takes care of our state’s most vulnerable, disaffected, and powerless citizens. These children deserve a system populated by lawyers as experienced and talented as lawyers in any other practice area of law. The new State Bar certification sets a beacon for the practitioners in this field.

Q; How will your certification in child welfare law benefit your clients?

Mona Leipold: Creation of this new certification will assist in providing ongoing legislative attention and support. Hopefully, this attention will result in funding to gain and maintain adequate staff, court time, and development of programs to provide sufficient and timely access to necessary public services for families who are involved with social services. Finally, this will have a long-term impact on preventing adverse childhood experiences and trauma to children in our communities.

Q; Are there any hot topics in child welfare law right now?

Angenette (Angie) Stephenson: There are always interesting hot topics in child welfare law, because there is constant tension between the very important societal values of keeping children safe and a parent’s right to parent his or her child without governmental intrusion.

Lyana Hunter: Exploring what “reasonable efforts in reunification” looks like is always a hot topic. Also, the potential of adding social workers to help parent attorneys is a very hot topic and one that I hope will be standardized practice at some point in the future.

J. Lee Gilliam: One of the current hot issues is whether foster care placement should be viewed as “a grace period for the parents to prove they deserve their child” or as an opportunity for the government to help the parents address issues like poverty or substance abuse with the primary goal of returning the child home. As a matter of practice, this is the difference between using child-family time as a “stick” which is withheld from the parent for, e.g., a positive drug test, or liberally provided to encourage maintenance of a strong parent-child bond. Another practical impact of the chosen approach is whether the parent’s services plan has activities uniquely tailored to improve the parent’s particular situation, or is it a  “hoop” primarily used to build a case against the parent for a future termination of parental rights proceeding.

Q: How do you stay current in your field?

Matthew Jackson: The best way for me to stay current is to follow the information put out by the UNC School of Government, which includes frequent blog posts, publications, and quarterly court opinion summaries.

Lyana Hunter: I attend every training I can, usually organized by the Parent Defender’s Office in conjunction with the UNC School of Government team. We are so fortunate to have these resources in our state!

J. Lee Gilliam: The UNC School of Government and the ABA provide listservs where professional colleagues both here and in other states share ideas and helpful resources.

Q: How is certification important in this practice area?

Wendy Sotolongo: The decisions courts make in child welfare proceedings are serious and life changing. Removing a child from a parent’s custody causes trauma to the child and interferes with a parent’s constitutional right to parent their child. Yet, placement outside the home may be needed to keep the child safe from harm. It is critically important that the parent, their child, and the government all have high-quality legal representation so that the court can receive the information needed to balance competing interests and make quality decisions.

David Hord: The importance of having high quality representation in child welfare court proceedings cannot be understated. It is not the most well known or most fashionable area of the law, but cases that involve abused and neglected children, and potentially termination of parental rights, can be very difficult and delicate legal matters. All the parties in these cases (child welfare agencies, parents/caretakers, and children) deserve the highest quality representation, and the child welfare certification allows attorneys to be recognized for providing that representation.

Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?

Mona Leipold: Child welfare lawyers work tirelessly for their clients, with limited resources, staff, and time. They are often behind the scenes and go unrecognized for the work they do which contributes to the public welfare. They should seek certification to gain acknowledgment and respect for their hard work.

Deana Fleming: It sets you apart from other attorneys in your practice area, and it is a worthwhile personal achievement.

Q: What’s most rewarding about your work in child welfare?

Matthew Jackson: The most rewarding part of my work is seeing that a child involved with our agency has become successful. Often, I read about the successes of “our children” in the newspaper or see them out in public where they are doing positive things.

Angenette Stephenson: As a former foster care social worker, I find child welfare legal work extremely rewarding, particularly in my current role of representing a county department of social services. There are so many situations where social workers are called upon to make social work decisions that have significant legal implications. I love the lightbulb moment when social workers begin to understand a statutory requirement, and I enjoy working with them to develop strategies to ensure children are protected and live with family whenever possible.

David Hord: The list is a short one when naming the areas of the law that can have as positive an impact on the community as child welfare law. Our courts have the ability—and the responsibility—to positively impact the lives of the children and families under its jurisdiction. Selfishly, it is incredibly rewarding knowing that I can play a very small part in helping a child find a safe, stable, and permanent home.

Q: Who are your role models?

Matt McKay: Ulysses S. Grant at Shiloh who, when General Sherman observed how badly they had lost the day’s battle, replied “Yep. Lick ‘em tomorrow though.”

Mona Leipold: Edward A. Pone,  Cumberland County chief district court judge, retired.

Q: What is one inspirational movie or book that has motivated your career path?

Wendy Sotolongo: It didn’t motivate my career path, but My Cousin Vinny is one of my favorite movies. While it’s very funny, I also love the message that Vinny doesn't solve the case all by himself—he needs help from his friends and loved ones. I think it’s a valuable lesson for all attorneys: It’s okay to get help and support from each other and from our families and friends.

Matt Wunsche: Like so many lawyers, To Kill a Mockingbird is the story that inspired me to be a lawyer. It’s such a unique legal story because it’s told from the point of view of the children, particularly Scout. I think about that a lot while working in child welfare, because the kids affected by our cases should always be our priority and they see everything that is happening.

Q: For BETA exam takers: How did you prepare for the exam?

Lyana Hunter: I used the study guide and read most of the referenced statutes, etc. I also looked through the AND Manual published through the UNC School of Government, took notes, and re-read those. I definitely got flashbacks of studying for the bar exam.

Matt McKay: Basically, the same as one would prepare for law school or bar exam materials. I read and created an outline for the relevant portions of Chapter 7B of the NCGS from top to bottom, did the same with affiliated sections of code or regulations, then continued to review/condense/memorize that material.

Q: For initial committee members: What was the motivation to pursue a new specialty in child welfare law in North Carolina?

Matt Wunsche: I think both to recognize the expertise that exists around the state in child welfare law, and to encourage folks to seek specialization and raise the level of practice in our courts. Developing and rewarding specialists will benefit everyone who comes into contact with the child welfare system.

Sara DePasquale: Those who regularly practice in child welfare law know how complex and unique it is. Although it involves families and children, it is vastly different from family law. Although juveniles are the subject of the court action, it is nothing like a juvenile delinquency case. Yet, in North Carolina, the practice of family law and juvenile delinquency are both specialties. A child welfare specialty was missing. Nationally, there is a child welfare law specialist certification, but that certification does not focus on North Carolina laws. The creation of this specialty recognizes the complexity and uniqueness of the practice in North Carolina, requiring knowledge of North Carolina laws and procedures. This specialty fills the gap that existed. 

First Class of Child Welfare Law Specialists

Sydney Batch, Raleigh
Gail Carelli, Raleigh
Rick Croutharmel, Raleigh
Sara DePasquale, Chapel Hill
Deana K. Fleming, Chapel Hill
Joseph Lee Gilliam, Durham
David F. Hord IV, Raleigh
Lyana G. Hunter, Wilmington
Matthew Jackson, Winterville
Mona E. Leipold, Morganton
Annick I. Lenoir-Peek, Durham
Matthew B. McKay, Charlotte
Reggie O’Rourke, Holly Springs
Shannon Poore, Raleigh
Wendy Sotolongo, Durham
Angie Stephenson, Chapel Hill
Matt Wunsche, Raleigh