When families fall apart: Helping Nebraska’s low-income families reach their potential

Police raid a Nebraska home with a meth lab in the basement. The parents are soon on their way to jail and the children placed into protective custody. This crime scene is also where 8-year-old “Natalie” and her three siblings live, play and grow. Natalie’s home is all that she knows, and the foundation upon which her ability to thrive as a human is based.

Artwork from an 8-year-old Legal Aid of Nebraska client after being reunified with her family.

An intelligent and gifted child, Natalie struggled in these unfair circumstances. She mothered her three younger siblings as her own mother struggled with a life of addiction and crime.

When it was time to go to court, the family met Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Juvenile Justice Project Attorney Laurel Johnson.

“She [Natalie] understood that her parents made choices to put her family in danger and could identify feeling unsafe. But, like most children, she had a fierce loyalty to her parents, and wanted to go home,” Johnson said.

In the end, her parents were able to get sober and achieve stability and the children returned home.

“When you are able to see a case from beginning to end and witness the growth within the family, those are the most successful outcomes and what drives me to want to do the work I do.”

Next to her desk, Johnson displays a gift from Natalie — a card with orange and red hearts that reads “Thank you for helping us.”

Children and Families Division: The right approach to each case

As an attorney in Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Juvenile Justice Project, a program under our Children and Families unit, Johnson says she works with populations that are at high-risk for re-entering the system. But Johnson’s self-guided principles help her stay focused despite repeat offenders.

“She understood that her parents made choices to put her family in danger and could identify feeling unsafe, but like most children, she had a fierce loyalty to her parents and wanted to go home.”

Laurel Johnson

Laurel Johnson

Her first principle? She focuses on the fact that she is tasked with a role and she does her best to fulfill it within the confines of the law.  “I can’t control client actions or most other factors in cases. I can only control my own integrity and approach to each case. Every single person is entitled to an advocate in these cases, not just because the law says that they are, but also because they are human and deserve dignity.”

“Rehabilitation is not a one-shot effort. Instead, I try to look at it as making each family the best that they can be. Sometimes families have setbacks and are not their best selves, even after efforts at reunification and rehabilitation. They are human.”

A significant part of her daily work is as a court-appointed attorney in Separate Juvenile Court Honorable Judge Roger Heideman’s Family Treatment Drug Court, located within juvenile court of Lancaster County.

Johnson’s area of expertise is substance abuse. She benefitted greatly from attending two different national drug court conferences. This experience makes her a great fit for Judge Heideman’s courtroom and she is thankful to practice law there every day.

“He gets the cases that involve substance abuse allegations against parents.” Heideman’s done a lot of training in this area and in turn, Johnson has benefitted from specialized training.

“Who can’t think of someone who is in their family or friends who has suffered from substance abuse? There are so many ripple effects from that and if you don’t have the support or resources — or sometimes, even if you do — you can find yourself in these situations.”

How Legal Aid helps

In the first quarter of 2021, 98% of Children and Family cases were closed successfully with Legal Aid assistance. Successful outcomes include providing protection from abuse, increasing safety, improving financial stability, ensuring access to food and healthcare, and maintaining housing for children and families. This was not done alone. When Legal Aid receives donations from the community and our donors, as well as when Legal Aid becomes the recipients of grants, it allows our attorneys to provide legal assistance that changes lives.

When a child-abuse or neglect case is filed in Nebraska, Legal Aid attorneys serving on the Juvenile Justice Project are appointed to be their guardian ad litem or counsel. In general, attorneys handle caseloads, evaluate potential cases to determine acceptance and gather information to assist in determining case acceptance, among other duties.

Next, the attorneys formulate legal opinions based on the investigation, interviews and research. They help prepare for pleadings, research, discovery, negotiations, settlement, litigation and appeal if appropriate. Johnson currently handles 60 cases, but at times, her caseload can be as high as 100, as the weeks and contacts vary.

“Rehabilitation is not a one-shot effort. Instead, I try to look at it as making each family the best that they can be.”

While a lot of Johnson’s docket is family drug court, Johnson regularly has an unpredictable schedule. “Based on the sensitive nature of some hearings, or the statutory requirement for an extremely prompt hearing, we have some hearings that get set with an extremely quick turnaround which requires patience, flexibility and the ability to quickly process and synthesize information.”

The Juvenile Justice Project in Lancaster County provides attorneys to serve as Guardians Ad Litem, or counsel, to parents and children in law violation cases, abuse/neglect cases and truancy cases. The project is managed by Director of Children and Families Pat Carraher, and is supported through a contract with Lancaster County.

Carraher said that Johnson has been impressive since day one.

“She started at Legal Aid when she was in an undergraduate social work program at Nebraska Wesleyan. She’s been a dedicated Legal Aid employee almost her entire adult life in capacity. The Juvenile Justices judges really respect her.”

Inspired by a close family relative who was a social worker, Johnson pursued social work in college. “I was able to see my aunt’s passion and see some of that in myself.”  She was fortunate to begin working at Legal Aid during college and has stayed ever since assisting Nebraska’s families. “I was really lucky that it worked out that way.”

Just one wrong decision or one loss of support away from functioning

“One misconception about the work we do centers around the term ‘child abuse.’ In reality, the vast majority of our cases involved child neglect, and poverty has a major impact on that. So many of our clients are one bad choice or one loss of support away from being in extremely vulnerable positions, and that is the reality of living in poverty.”

“I would argue that there are few rights more fundamentally important than the right to parent your child. In these cases, stakes are high and the content is serious.”

She says Legal Aid’s Juvenile Justice Team has a wealth of experience and resources thanks to the combined experience of long-time Legal Aid attorneys on staff, like Pat Carraher and Juvenile Justice Attorney Hazell Rodriguez. “I also think Legal Aid attracts people who really care.”

Johnson says it’s a hard job and that Legal Aid provides quality representation to children and families. “Judges have the authority in these cases to enter orders that sever parental rights, which is a foundational part of the law.”

“I would argue that there are few rights more fundamentally important than the right to parent your child. In these case, stakes are high and the content is serious. Each of the roles that our attorneys play is extremely consequential in the system as a whole. Most people do have such capacity to grow and to rehabilitate with the right services and support in place.”

Thanks to the advocacy of attorneys through our Juvenile Justice Project, children like Natalie and her siblings, have both a voice and a protector to help them grow up in safe, loving homes without fear.

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Jen Litton, Development Coordinator, is the author of this article.

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