Keely A. Magyar
Keely A. Magyar
New York, like most states, provides lawyers to children in abuse and neglect cases. I had hoped Love & Diane would show one of these attorneys at work. Unfortunately, according to filmmaker Jennifer Dworkin, Donyaeh’s law guardian—not to be confused with Love’s attorney, Lauren Shapiro— never met with Love, her boyfriend, Diane, or anyone else in Donyaeh’s family during the eighteen months of filming. Diane, or anyone else in Donyaeh’s family. Sadly, this is probably due more to systemic problems than to one attorney’s shortcomings.
The quality of legal services for abused and neglected children is often abysmal. Restrictions on attorney compensation, such as per-case caps and bars against payment for time spent visiting children, lead to exorbitant caseloads and dissuade attorneys from giving cases ample attention. (Donyaeh’s attorney was probably responsible for one to two hundred children.) Many courts have insufficient quality control mechanisms. Low pay and lack of respect in the legal community deter bright new attorneys from entering the field. There are few training opportunities for those who pursue careers in children’s advocacy. This work exacts a great emotional toll because of the high stakes, unmanageable caseloads, and a toxic combination of policies promoting family reunification and a dearth of high quality community services to address the complex problems of low-income families. Consequently, burnout leads to attrition of many talented, experienced attorneys.
A zealous advocate for Donyaeh could have discouraged the court from placing Donyaeh in foster care and encouraged the court to order services to address Love’s mental health needs and strengthen her parenting skills. Donyaeh could have stayed with his mother on the condition that she attend therapy and work intensively with a social worker to learn how to care for Donyaeh. If Donyaeh had been placed temporarily in Diane’s custody, he could have seen his mother daily. Love and Donyaeh might have thrived in a residential program for young mothers and children. Any of these solutions would have spared Donyaeh the trauma of removal from his mother and, later, from his foster parent. If foster care were truly the best option for Donyaeh, an involved attorney could have ensured that he did not return home unless Love was receiving ample support and demonstrating marked improvement.
Paradoxically, the film calls into question both Donyaeh’s placement in foster care and his return home. A zealous, competent advocate for Donyaeh could have helped the court answer these difficult questions. Legal services for children can make a difference, and Love & Diane demonstrates what happens when the legal profession fails to give its best to some of society’s most needy.
Keely Magyar, Senior Program Director at Lawyers for Children America, trains and supports volunteer attorneys who represent the interests of abused and neglected children and adolescents. Ms. Magyar, a court-appointed attorney herself, also provides direct legal services to young people in abuse and neglect cases. An active member of several Family Court committees and the D.C. Bar Family Law Section Steering Committee, she promotes systemic reforms that enable the legal system to serve young people better.