Another Success Story
Parents caught up in the downward spiral of their own substance abuse rarely know how to access community resources after they leave their first court appearance. Being parents, they are usually in good faith but don't know where to go to seek help and end up right back in court, still lost. They are usually unaware, and always confused by, the social welfare system that is available to help them become the parents they desperately want to be.
Yolanda Lewis-Harris is a social worker who works with respondent parents in child welfare cases in the 4th Judicial District in Colorado. She helps her clients find resources that meet their needs and does whatever it takes to help them succeed, from providing transportation to coordinating with service providers, agency caseworkers, and attorneys.
Ms. Lewis-Harris's position is unique.
- She is employed by the respondent parents' attorney.
- Her work is funded by a family reunification grant given to her jurisdiction by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Once the federal grant was obtained, the 13 panel attorneys who represent the 4th Judicial District formed a limited liability company to employ Ms. Lewis-Harris.
- She was given an office in the courthouse.
- She works only with parents who have substance abuse issues.
- Her cases are assigned by the courts to ensure that she has no more than one case per attorney.
Lewis-Harris generally starts by attending the family's preliminary permanency proceeding. She then meets with the parents in their home and asks them to identify their goals. Often these goals go beyond the case plan goals and include things like going to college or moving to a safer community. Through their work with Lewis-Harris, parents learn to identify their own needs and become familiar with community resources.
Lewis-Harris then takes each client to their appointments and ensures they get what they need. This often includes visiting a food bank, receiving assistance from churches, requesting public housing, or getting help with rent or utilities. Lewis-Harris also attends meetings with agency staff and service providers. This ensures that all professionals are on the same page and have the same information.
Lewis-Harris says, "When we go to court it's really helpful if everyone knows what everyone else's concerns are and what others are proud of with regard to treatment, or if treatment needs to be changed." If possible, Lewis-Harris attends every court hearing.
Every case worker wishes they could be an ombudsman for every client. Too often they witness client after client fail to reclaim their lives and lose custody of their children because they could not navigate a complex and often opaque system that was put in place to help, not punish them.
Congratulations to the 4th Judicial District in Colorado, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and to Yolanda Lewis-Harris for coming up with a creative solution to a subtle but serious problem!