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“Let’s Talk About You”

An American Bar Association Litigation Section Children’s Rights Litigation Committee and Lambda Legal Initiative

 

Our team of people with lived experience in child welfare, juvenile justice, and immigration proceedings and attorneys for children in those systems has created resources to help children’s lawyers have conversations with their child and youth clients, in a respectful and trauma informed way, about their identity. This conversation is a critical part of zealous advocacy.

 

  • If you are scared to ask me these basic questions then how can I trust you to work on this big case for me? – lived experience expert

     

    Attorneys for children represent clients across the spectrum of identity and life experience. Children involved with government or government-funded systems of care and in immigration proceedings are disproportionately Black and Brown and LGBTQ+. Societal inequities and rejection fuel this over-representation and are prevalent in care and in the community. Children also navigate lack of respect for their culture and pressure to conform to a placement or provider’s religious beliefs. Given these realities and the importance of knowing every client as a whole person, including their passions and aspirations, conversations about identity and experiences are a critical part of zealous advocacy.

  • Our team of people with lived experiences and attorneys for children in child welfare, juvenile justice, and immigration proceedings has created resources to help children’s lawyers have conversations with their child and youth clients, in a respectful and trauma informed way, about their identity. This information is essential to be effective advocates, but lawyers do not always know how to have these conversations. Understandably, some lawyers worry about being intrusive or that they might unintentionally offend their clients. You will not find absolutes here because there is not one right way to have these conversations. We hope that this guidance will shift your general approach to conversations with clients, which you can then adjust to each individual.

     

  • Talking to your clients about their identity need not be one more burden for lawyers. These resources are meant to assist you in integrating these conversations into your practice in a way that feels natural and authentic for you. These conversations will not take long and can go a long way in strengthening your relationship with your client.

    Though conversations around identity might feel daunting, the advice from our team members with lived expertise is that lawyers for children need to talk about all kinds of uncomfortable things – they talk about child abuse and help clients navigate testifying in front of their abusers. Talking to your clients about their identity is both important and do-able and not any more or less challenging than other necessary part of your role. Further, given the equity issues in government systems serving children and ongoing assaults on identity and attempts to eliminate discussions of bias, it’s time that we realize it’s not ok to not talk to a client about their identity.

IDENTITY

  • “People talk about me as if who I am is broken up” – lived experience expert

    What do we mean when we use the term “identity”? Youth, like all of us, have a variety of identities that can overlap. As their lawyer you don’t just need to know or ask about one piece of their identity, but their identity as a whole. Society often purposely leaves out/boxes out parts of a youth’s identity and who they are. We need to understand that identity encompasses all parts of our child and youth clients.

    Identity can include– race; ethnicity; religion; sexual orientation; gender identity; whether someone has a disability; and their experiences in state custody, in school, and in the community related to their identity and expression. Culture as it relates to geographical location can be part of identity. Identity also includes your passions, for example, music, art, or sports.  Passions can influence how you dress. It is helpful to know these passions so that lawyers can ensure that youth are able to pursue interests  that give youth outlets and helps them become who they are.

    Case example – one team member with lived experience does not eat pork because he is Muslim but while in foster care no one told his foster parent, so she just thought he was picky. Instead of respecting his religious beliefs she gave him a hard time about his dietary restriction. In the foster care system, there is a lot of conversation about prioritizing the religious beliefs of providers, however the religious beliefs of our clients must be prioritized and respected as well.

    See “Dimensions of Identity” below for more.

  • Let us count the ways! Discrimination based on who you are harms your well-being. Well-being of children and youth should be a central focus in these systems. Given the over-representation of Black and Brown youth in care and LGBTQ+ youth and countless studies showing poorer outcomes compared to White and non-LGBTQ+ peers, we know discrimination and bias is part of our clients’ lives. On a more uplifting note, talking about identity with our clients is a way to show we see them as a whole person and demonstrate genuine care for your client. Getting to know them is part of caring about them.

    “They looked at me as whole and not broken. They noticed me as a person. Asking is caring.” – lived experience expert

    A client’s identity also impacts their legal case. For example, whether your client is in a safe and affirming placement, whether they are experiencing bullying at school or whether they may have a particular avenue of relief in their immigration case. In addition, are their religious needs being met or are they being pressured to practice a certain faith? Are their cultural needs met?  Understanding your client’s identity enables you to be the zealous advocate to which they are entitled.

Lets Talk About You Video One

Initial Client Meeting & Second Client Meeting

VIDEO BY An American Bar Association Children’s Rights Litigation Committee & Lambda Legal Initiative

 

Doing “the work” requires being aware, responsive, and actively seeking to understand others — and ourselves. How do you repair a harm done when you recognize you may have erred while relating with someone else? Interact with the following scenario to learn how to repair after rupture when engaging with a youth client.

First impressions with your client set the tone for your relationship. How do you create space for your clients to ensure a sense of safety and expectation of non-judgement? Use this scenario to study how to set your client relationship up for long term cohesion, and more effective counsel and representation.

Where do I start?

  • We have to do our own work before these conversations can happen. Without being informed, these critical conversations can be difficult, uncomfortable, and misguided. To be ready to have an authentic and unbiased conversation about your clients’ identities, our team wanted to share a few things to understand first.

    • We need to understand that our systems do not mean that justice will prevail. Our systems can perpetrate injustice for our clients, their families, and their communities.

    • We need to understand how our clients view us – lawyers are part of this system. Your work for your clients is important but we must acknowledge that the system you are part of has been part of the problem. The populations you are working with have been historically mistreated by the system in which you work. As a result, we need to have an understanding of the history of these systems as well as the communities we serve. In addition, as lawyers we don’t always take enough ownership of our role within these systems, but we need to.

    • Our systems often gloss over or assume identity and consistently say that how people define themselves does not matter.

     

    To assist in doing needed preparation, here are resources that can be helpful.

    GET MORE RESOURCES
  • “Self-care is so important for lawyers. Self-care is a game changer. If you can’t take care of yourself, what makes you think you can take care of me and my needs?”
    –lived experience expert

     

    Being a lawyer for children is challenging and stressful. Our team members with lived expertise recognize this clearly and understand that there are many systemic barriers such as high caseloads and chaotic court dockets that contribute to this stress and make self-care a challenge. With that in mind, our team believes that to be the best advocates for our clients, lawyers must have the time and tools to address our own stress.

    Attorneys with unmanaged stress can cause clients to feel like a burden or that they are just another case. Therefore, it is imperative to address mental wellness before speaking with clients.

    Case example – One team member had a lawyer who made her feel like just another burden on her caseload. That team member asks lawyers to ask themselves: What is your intention in being a lawyer? What is your why and motivation? Lawyers (and anyone who works with children and youth) need to figure out what they need to take care of themselves.

    Our team believes strongly in self-care for lawyers. Lawyers need wellness days, access to meditation apps and retreats through their organizations. Self-care needs to be integrated into a lawyer’s workday. To support lawyer doing this work, the team is sharing resources that we hope will help:

    Resources for self-care:

    GET MORE RESOURCES
  • Lawyers have heavy caseloads and limited time. It is important to set boundaries with our clients in a way that is respectful to clients but also mindful of your schedules and burdens.

  • If you are not ready for certain conversation, then don’t raise them with your clients and do not have signalers that indicate you are.  For example, do not wear a rainbow pin if you are not ready to have a conversation with your client about their LGBTQ+ status.  You need to prepare yourself so that you are ready for these conversations. Identify some steps to you can take so you can be ready. Some ideas include:

    • Reviewing the training videos that accompany this toolkit (LINK);
    • Practice with a co-worker;
    • Do a trial run with a client you already have a great existing relationship with (or perhaps with a teenager in your life); and/or
    • Review these resources:
    GET MORE RESOURCES

What Are The Essential Building Blocks?

Incorporating these basic interview practices will set you up to have a great conversation about identity:

  • A lawyer is a guide and mentor within the case. It is important to make a concerted effort to connect to each client and create a professional relationship.   Don’t just talk to them on the day of court – have check-up times when you just check in to see how they are.  That shows you care and are invested. Also be sure to follow up on prior conversations.

  • Show your client that they can depend on you. Sometimes lawyers start asking big questions about a case right away, but it can be helpful to start with smaller questions and build trust.

  • Sometimes attorneys can be serious or unapproachable which can cause clients to not open up and share. Being friendly can be really helpful in creating a trusting relationship.

  • Make sure that clients understand what is going on in their case. Use kid friendly words: if you are in court and a word is used that they may not understand- be sure to explain it. Ask what your client wants and needs and then work to make sure those needs are met.

    When talking about identity, it is important to explain WHY and give context for the questions you are asking your clients. That will help them feel more comfortable sharing with you and understand that this information is necessary to be their advocate.

  • Confidentiality is hard to understand – it needs to be explained well so that kids feel comfortable opening up. Children and youth are often scared of what will happen when they speak up – they need to know it’s safe to share. Get to know your client so you know what will help them to open up.

    NOTE: be clear that you won’t disclose anything said about identity. This information is for your internal conversation and work together. Lawyers should not disclose what a client shares with about identity without their explicit and counseled decision. If your role in a state with a GAL model does not allow absolute confidentiality, be sure to be upfront and transparent. If you might have to share if asked, you can let your client know and have a conversation with them about sharing before you do.

  • A client may realize later that they need to tell things to their lawyer, their needs might change, and especially during adolescence, self-identification can evolve, so it is important for lawyers to keep giving clients time to share. Checking in and continuing to ask questions can give space for this, as it is might not be a one-time conversation for your client.

    What if your client says this is not your business right now?  You may bring up questions of identity when your client is in crisis or it’s just not the right time to talk about it. Continue to show you are trustworthy and keep giving them space to share their identity with you. Laying the groundwork early will allow for opportunity for further discussion as your relationship with your client develops.

  • Our team of lived experts felt that no matter what role you have as a lawyer (attorney or guardian ad litem), it is imperative to keep information about your client’s identity confidential unless you have their express permission to share. Disclosure before your client is ready and without their permission will not only destroy the trust they have in you, it could result in harm to them.

    Explain to clients whether you have a relationship with a guarantee of confidentiality or not. Some youth may already be out to their family, school, and community and confidentiality is not a primary concern.

    In the end, whether to disclose any part of their identity is a youth’s decision. Our team asks that if you feel that the rules in your jurisdiction or role may require you to disclose without the opportunity to discuss with a client beforehand or the ability to guarantee nondisclosure, please do not use this toolkit.

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The Conversation: What Techniques Should I Use?

  • You can and should acknowledge identity and cultural differences between you and your clients.  You don’t need to deny or avoid them.

     

  • Don’t even assume you know your client’s name as your client may go by a different name than what you read in their file. You can say your name and pronouns when you introduce yourself and ask your client for their name and pronouns. You might share that you have a name for them that appears on paperwork from the court, but that you want to check in with them on whether that is the name the client goes by or uses.

    Don’t make assumptions about other elements of identity as well (e.g. just because parents have a certain religion don’t assume your client has the same one). When you meet a client, you can ask them “tell me about yourself” and give them space to say who they are. You can ask them basic things including what they are interested in. Have natural conversations with your client. Some young kids are still learning their identities, give them space for that too. They may not be familiar with language or formal terminology, but they certainly know how they feel.

  • Be direct, but tactful, when talking to your client about identity. Don’t dance around this issue. Be personal, upfront and child centered. If you are comfortable sharing your own experience or parts of your own identity that can be helpful. For example, share your name/ nickname/passion/who you are. This helps acknowledge your differences as well and gives your client space to share about themselves.

  • There is no checklist or one-size-fits-all approach to these conversations. Every one of your clients is different so a “one size fits all” plan will not work for all of your clients. A general approach is great but be ready to pivot and tailor. It really is about following your client’s lead.

    Even if you don’t get it exactly right, just starting the conversation will be helpful and it is also ok to apologize if you feel like you make a misstep in a conversation about identity. Your clients will respond to your authenticity as you approach these conversations. No one expects you to be perfect.

    Here are two links to webpages that contain glossaries of terms that might be helpful in your conversation Key Terms and Concepts | Youth.gov and A Guide to Understanding Gender Identity and Pronouns : NPR

    GET RESOURCE
  • Meet your child or youth client where they are. Take an individualized approach to this conversation. You may not have a lot of time in that first meeting. Sometimes it is easier to talk about basic things like favorite shows (and follow up on some of those interests in later conversation to illustrate your investment in your client). Then as you get to know them some of these issues will come out naturally. Pay attention to your client to help you to know if your clients might need more time to talk about issues like identity.

  • When you first meet there are things you can start with right away like name and pronouns (What are pronouns? Here is a helpful resource. Create safe spaces like a safe spaces pin or badge.  Having an identifier like a safe space or pride flag in your office.  Let them know you are a safe person to talk to. Having a conversation about identity as soon as possible after meeting is a great goal because a client’s safety and wellbeing may be impacted immediately be their placement or new school.

After The Conversation: What Do I Do Now?

What support does your client need when they disclose parts of their identity?

  • Once you identify your clients’ passions or various parts of their identity, you can ensure that they are connected to community and resources. Ask them: “What do you need to feel supported? How would you like to connect to community?”

    What is community? Often others define our communities for us and therefore do not connect us to the communities that we feel we are a part of. Ask your client who do they want their community to be? How do they identify their community? The system pre-defines who communities are and does not consider young people’s perspectives when talking about community. Keep in mind that networks can be virtual as well.

    Lawyers can help break down barriers to community that our systems put in place, for example the child welfare system’s inability to pay for a sports fee. If you client wants to be on a team but a fee to participate is a barrier, work to break that barrier down. If your client wants to go to church but there is no transportation, do they have a relative or friend who might be able to provide transportation? There are often creative solutions that can increase connections for our clients.

    “Everyone needs access to community.” – Lived experience expert

  • Conversations about identity may lead to a discussion about resources your client may want or need to be their full selves or to address past or current trauma. For example, a conversation about gender identity may lead to your client sharing a desire to consult with qualified medical professionals about gender-affirming health care. Clients in immigration case may have experienced harmful conditions in their country of origin related to their identity and benefit from a professional trained in addressing PTSD in a culturally-informed way.

  • A conversation may lead to information about current harm that requires court action. Some youth may be actively experiencing discrimination or harm in a current placement. LGBTQ+ young people are statistically more likely to be placed in solitary confinement in detention settings or re-entering the community after time in a facility without suitable housing. One of the advantages of conversations about identity is the chance to learn more about current experiences and the opportunity to work with your client to prevent further harm from the system.

    “Talking to your client about identity – just like every conversation you have with your client – should be a normal, authentic and relaxed conversation.” – Lived experience expert.

Report Cover Childrens Rights Call To Action on Fighting Institutional Racism

Report Cover Children’s Rights Call To Action on Fighting Institutional Racism

Access Essential Learning & Resources

 

Keep building on your learning with resources curated for your conversation with your child  / youth about their identity to support a healthy client-lawyer relationship, manage self care, contextualize “the system” and combat inequities related to racism and other systemic issues.

MORE RESOURCES

SPECIAL THANKS TO OUR PROJECT TEAM

Shèàr Avory, National Advisory Council on Children’s Legal Representation, National Association of Counsel for Children

Brit Brown-Christopher, Alumnus, Youth Fostering Change, Juvenile Law Center

Currey Cook, Director, Youth in Out of Home Care Project, Lambda Legal

Yojana Giron Perez, Mid-South Immigration Advocates, Memphis, TN

Jen Ha, National Advisory Council on Children’s Legal Representation, National Association of Counsel for Children

Marcía Hopkins, Senior Manager, Youth Advocacy Program & Policy, Juvenile Law Center

Cathy Krebs, Committee Director, ABA Litigation Section Children’s Rights Litigation Committee

Marco R. Martinez, Youth Organizing Coordinator, NMCAN, Albuquerque, NM

Selena Moreno, NMCAN, Albuquerque, NM

Cristal Ramirez, Youth Coordinator, National Association of Counsel for Children

Anthony Simpson, Alumni Fellow, Youth Fostering Change, Juvenile Law Center

Veronica Virgen-Williams, Staff Attorney, Mid-South Immigration Advocates, Memphis, TN

Maia Zelkind, Paralegal, Youth in Out of Home Care Project, Lambda Legal


This resource was made possible in collaboration with Casey Family Programs, whose mission is to provide, improve – and ultimately prevent the need for – foster care.

 

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and, accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.  Nothing contained in on this website is to be considered as the rendering of legal advice for specific cases, and readers are responsible for obtaining such advice from their own legal counsel.