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Guidelines for Acceptance of a Child's Case
by Andrew Vachss

I receive a ton of mail. The letter-writers range from predator to prey to hunter, from fan to critic, from those seeking advice to those offering it, from the most fervent praise to the vilest threats, from those offering to help in any way they can to utterly self-absorbed individuals with transparent agenda. The mail comes from all over the world. And never stops coming. However, during periods of peak "exposure" of my work—be it a TV appearance, a magazine article, a newspaper profile, a new book, et al—the volume of mail rises radically.

It is not uncommon for me to receive, literally, thousands of letters as a result of a single article in Parade, and because the books are in so many languages, requests for assistance come in from all corners of the planet. Since the launching of The Zero, with its capacity for instant contact, the volume has risen considerably.

An analysis of the mail, however, reveals that a significant percentage of it comes from those asking this question, in one form or another: "Will you take my child's case?" While I would prefer to respond individually to each such request, volume no longer makes this possible. So I am using this forum to explain my policy on the representation of children. It is my hope that this will not only divert people to more productive resources for their needs, but will obviate unnecessary correspondence on everyone's part.

First of all, I am not for hire by an adult to "represent" a child in any intrafamilial matter, period. That includes (but is not limited to) abuse, neglect, custody, visitation, and termination of parental rights.

The reason for this is simple: The essence of my role as a lawyer for children is independence. When adults offer to retain me to represent their child, they are, in truth, trying to retain me to represent their view of the facts concerning that child. If they can hire me, they can fire me. So, for example, if a parent hires me on the ground that the other parent is sexually abusing their child and demanding unsupervised visitation, and I investigate the matter and learn that it is the parent who hired me who is, in fact, the abuser ... what do I do?

Would "attorney-client privilege" prevent me from not only disclosing the truth I have learned but also from moving against the abuser? This is a question I do not care to litigate. Not only would it consume vast amounts of time and money, it would detract from my mission ... such legalistics are not the reason I entered this profession.

Many parents who call me quite honestly admit that, were the child's other parent to call, his or her version of the facts would differ substantially from their own. How, therefore, am I to determine the truth? Investigations are time-consuming, expensive, and certainly not guaranteed to please anyone.

That is why, under the New York system, a lawyer (called a "law guardian") is appointed by statutory requirement for every child in every abuse and neglect case. The parents, guardians, or caretakers charged in such proceedings may not hire a lawyer "for" the child. This is because the State recognizes the automatic conflict of interest when a lawyer is paid by the very people he or she might have to prosecute.

In some cases (such as custody or visitation disputes), appointment of a law guardian is optional, at the discretion of the court. But, even in those cases, none of the adult parties can "hire" a lawyer to represent the child's "best interests," because, quite obviously, the child's best interests may be in direct conflict with the adult's. So while a parent may be held financially responsible for the child's legal representation (as is sometimes found by the court), the parent may not select such representation. Can you imagine the two parties to a custody battle agreeing on the same "representative" for their child?

Not all states have the same system. Indeed, some states do not provide counsel for children in abuse and neglect cases at all (!), allowing a lay volunteer to be "the child's voice in court," thus disenfranchising the most vulnerable members of our society ... but that is another story, for another time.

Still, no state permits an adult in a dispute with another adult concerning a child to hire a lawyer for that child. Just imagine: What if parents were locked in a vicious custody dispute, and the mother wanted to hire a lawyer "for" the child? Wouldn't the father have an equal right to hire a lawyer "for" the child? And if those lawyers disagreed, how could the child be "represented" at all?

No, the "independent" system is not perfect. Yes, there are lawyers who accept such "independent" assignments who are biased, incompetent, lazy ... the list is endless. Of course, such pejoratives apply equally to any lawyer paid privately. The difference is that an aggrieved adult can always fire his or her lawyer and retain another, while the child cannot. This, too, is another story, for another time.

I am admitted to practice only in New York State. And while I have participated in cases in other states, they always include the following ingredients: (1) I am retained by the lawyer for the parties to assist; and (2) The matter either unites the parents against a third party (a day-care center, a predatory pedophile who used his or her position to injure their child, for example), or one of the parents has been criminally convicted of a crime against the child and the non-offending parent wants to proceed against the perpetrator in a civil action to recover damages and/or to further protect the child.

Regardless of the merits of any particular case, I cannot relocate my practice to another jurisdiction, nor could I effectively conduct an investigation long distance. Therefore, without a local lawyer already on the case, there is no way I could participate.

I will not comment on the work of other lawyers engaged in any particular case, because, again, I will not have all the facts at my disposal, only one person's version of the facts. There are many legitimate avenues of complaint against someone who represented a child inadequately. Those include, but are not limited to, malpractice suits, disciplinary committee complaints, and contact with the agency which appointed or assigned the lawyer, including the court itself. I cannot function as a super-agency, overseeing the work of others; it is beyond my resources.

I cannot help anyone "tell their story" to the media. I have no "contacts" in the media to which I can refer people. I cannot help anyone secure a book or movie deal. That is a job for an agent. The fact that a case has "great media potential" not only does not interest me, it indicates an appeal to the type of lawyer I most emphatically do not wish to be.

My personal policy is never to expose my own child clients to the media. I understand that there are those who disagree with this, whether for the most sacred or the most mercenary of reasons I leave to others to determine. Suffice it to say that I do not share that view, and would not assist anyone in effectuating it.

There is no point sending voluminous copies of court documents, letters, "analysis," psychological or investigative reports or anything of the sort to this office. My policy on representation of children is not flexible. I have turned down very famous people for the same reason I have turned down those I never heard of: I represent children, not an adult's view of the facts surrounding that child's case.

This is not to disparage the sincere, caring efforts of parents who desire to protect their children from the other (abusive) parent. It is to say that not only do I have no way of knowing the truth of the matter, but that I cannot represent a child in such a case unless appointed to do so by a court.

Neither am I an expert on the statute of limitations in other jurisdictions. It is futile, therefore, for a formerly-abused-child-now-adult to contact me for legal assistance in addressing something that occurred many years ago. Such individuals must consult counsel in the jurisdiction in which the events were alleged to have occurred.

I prefer not to make personal referrals. My experience is that I am rewarded for such referrals by constant pressure from clients who seek my micro-management of the case and "approval" over each and every move. Instead, if interested potential clients will check our Resources section, they will find many potential sources for referrals to lawyers in all jurisdictions.

I understand that many cries for help are heartfelt and legitimate. And while I am willing to assist lawyers engaged in the same work I am, I cannot add to my caseload except as above-noted. Because I may have received media attention for my work, some people believe that I am the only lawyer engaged in such work. That is not accurate, and anyone seeking counsel "for" children under circumstances such as I described would be best advised to contact appropriate organizations for the names of local lawyers who purport to have expertise in this area.

I do not seek agreement of others with my personal policy concerning representation of children. I ask only that my policies be respected. Each person is entitled to their judgments, but each person owns only his or her own conduct. Thank you for your consideration.

Andrew Vachss



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