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RACHAEL LEBLOND: Hi, Emma.Thank you so much for joining us today.
EMMA HETHERINGTON: Thank you for having me.
RACHAEL LEBLOND: Could you tell usa little bit about your backgroundin working with social workers?
EMMA HETHERINGTON: Sure.So when I began my legal practice,I worked at the Dekalb County Child Advocacy Centerin Atlanta, where we represented children in foster care.And in that office, we had two social workers on staffwho served as both investigators,but also as advocates for our clients.So they would go to special education meetingsfor our clients, citizen panel reviews, family team meetings
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: at the Department for Family and Children's Services, or DFCS.And they would really be a huge help for us in our casesto sort of fill in the gaps of I could find out what legallyneeded to happen in a case, but really,the social workers were there to be able to tell me,this is what this child needs outside of the courtroom.And then I would know much betterwhat to advocate for inside the courtroom.
RACHAEL LEBLOND: Nice.So from your perspective, what's the best waythat social workers can prepare for being in court?
EMMA HETHERINGTON: That is a great question.Go back and first look at your notes.Look at your case notes.Look at the file.I've actually had a student recently who--she's now an attorney, but she first was a social workerand she did forensic interviews for childrenwho'd been sexually abused.And I remember when she was in my clinic,she had to go because she'd been subpoenaed to go to court
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: and testify, and it was a client she hadn't seen for two years.And this can happen that you are calledto testify in a proceeding that is yearsafter you've seen this client.Or maybe you only saw this client for four sessionsand then they were returned to their parentsor they moved out of state, who knows-- or moved outof the county.But go back and look at those notes
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: and see what did you work with them on,why were you working with them.What kind of things did you talk about in your sessions?If there were any evaluations done through your agency,any trauma assessments or other sort of evaluations or needsassessments.Go back and look at those.Really, it's OK to do that.Go back and refresh your memory because those are the things
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: that you will be asked about in court,and it's always best practice to just go back and look at those.I would also contact the attorney thatsubpoenaed you to go to court.Now a subpoena is essentially a court orderor summons requiring you to show up at a hearing.You can't avoid a subpoena.You can't hide from it.They don't have to hand it directly to you.
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: Doesn't have to end up in your hands.If it comes to the correct person at your office,you've got to go to court.The penalty can be either fines or jail time.So go to court.But contact that attorney and say, hi, I'mthe social worker that you subpoenaed.What do you want me to testify about?Why are you contacting me?
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: Usually the subpoena will have eitherthe child's names or initials on it, but if it's the initials,you might not remember who that client is,depending on what agency you worked with, how long ago was.So you want to contact that attorneyand see, why do you want me there.What is the purpose of this?Because a lot of times, they don't--the attorneys themselves don't even exactly
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: know what you might say.I would contact that attorney, ask themwhat they want for you to testify about.And then say, can we practice.Can we meet and talk?I want to know what kind of questions you'll be asking me.And then as a social worker, you want to tell that attorney,I can or cannot answer something that you want me to.
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: A lot of times, attorneys--we do tend to twist things.If, for example, in certain proceedings,I might be able to just use some case notes that you'dwritten in a file or an email updatethat you sent to a caseworker at the Department for Familyand Children's Services, and I might notneed the social worker in court in certain types of hearings.
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: It depends on if it's a formal hearingor not and if something called hearsay is allowed, whichis essentially that someone's reportingthat someone reported that someone said.And so if hearsay is allowed in a proceeding,I don't need the social worker to testify to something.So it really helps for the attorneyto have context of those emails, of those letters,
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: of those case notes because we are not social workers.I am not a therapist.I am not a licensed clinical social worker or an LMFTor any of those things.I'm an attorney, and so I need to knowwhat did you mean when you said thisand what was the context for that.And not only that, tell me when you
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: say that this child has experiencedtrauma, what do you mean by that?Because trauma could mean a number of things.And so really talking to the attorney about it and reallyeducating that attorney on what you can or cannot testify to.Those are the main ways that I wouldsuggest preparing for court.
RACHAEL LEBLOND: So comprehensive.Thank you.And then what about-- so you've mentionedthere's different types of languagethat you speak as an attorney versus as a social worker.How can a social best educate whatever attorneythey're working with?
EMMA HETHERINGTON: Absolutely.So the legal codes or case law that we're working undermight have certain buzzwords in it-- like I mentioned,trauma could be one.Another thing could be child sexual abuse.So when I say child sexual abuse as an attorney,I'm talking about, 9 out of 10 times,I'm talking about the legal definition, whichmay be different from a social work definition
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: or a clinical definition.And so it's very important for the social workerto clarify with the attorney, well,when you say that, what do you mean?Does that legal definition fit with what clinicallyI would be saying as child sexual abuse or traumaor whatever those terms are?
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: You want to make sure that are actuallyspeaking those same languages and explain to themthat when I say child sexual abuse, it means these things,but maybe that legal definition doesn't quite fit.An example, under Georgia law is for sexual assault,
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: sexual assault has to either be--or sexual assault and battery hasto be touching of the genitals or female breasts,but that's it.So other people might say, well, there'sother types of sexual touching.But under a legal definition, I can't get a courtto say, yes, that was sexual assault.
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: So those terms are very important to discusswith social workers and with lawyers together to determinewhat can I actually advocate for in the courtroom,and then explain to each other whyit might be different in different contexts.
RACHAEL LEBLOND: So fast forwardinginto when a social worker is actuallyin court with you, what are some best practicesfor that social worker?
EMMA HETHERINGTON: Absolutely.So number one is speak when spoken to.The judge-- if the judge starts talking,don't talk over the judge.The judge is sort of the manager and the boss of that courtroom.So you let the judge--if the judge has questions for you, you answer them.I would say that some attorneys are going to try to trick you.They're going to try-- if you are testifying to something
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: that is adverse to their client theymight be trying to get you to say somethingthat you don't mean.I would say the best thing that youcan do is just realize they're doing their job.And they might not seem like a very nice personand they might seem like they're justtrying to do something that is so wrong,but just realize that as an attorney, that'swhat they're supposed to be doing in certain contexts.
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: Of course, there's attorney behaviorthat is well outside the realm ofour ethical and professionalism behaviorthat we should be doing.But just know that listen to their questionand just answer their question and just remain calm.The more combative that you become,the less that the judge will probably listen to you.I would also say that if you don't know an answer,
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: say I don't know.Just say it.You don't know.And if you don't remember some things,just say I don't remember.Like I mentioned before, maybe youdidn't work with this family for the last three yearsand you don't recall something.Then that is the answer that you just don't recall.And that's OK to say those things.And then also just general things to keep in mind,
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: only answer the question you're asked.One way to not feel like you're getting tripped up in courtis just say, OK, what exactly do they ask me and only answerthat question.Don't go outside of it.If you feel like you need to explain something in orderfor your answer to make sense, then absolutely explain it.But you don't have to talk about other topics.
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: Just answer their questions that they're asking you.And then that way, you can you canfeel like I'm truthfully answering these questionsbut I'm not betraying my client in any way.I'm not necessarily saying somethingthat's going to ruin that relationship of trustwith my client, but I'm but I'm getting outonto that court record exactly what is being asked of me.
RACHAEL LEBLOND: What are some implications of being in court,testifying in court as a social workerand working with your agency?So what kind of rules, regulations are there?
EMMA HETHERINGTON: Sure.Absolutely.So some agencies expect you to be subpoenaed and expectyou to go to court and that's part of your job.Hopefully your agency is helping providemaybe some in-service training on howto testify in court, what kind of thingsyou can or can't talk about.There are rules of confidentialityfor social workers.
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: I don't want to speak directly on that because, again, I'mnot a social worker.I can talk about attorney-client confidentiality,but with the social worker piece,you want to make sure that you are working with your agencythat you are not doing anything thatis against the laws of your stateor your agency's protocols.Some agencies will say, we don't want you to testify in court.
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: That can be really tricky.If you are subpoenaed, like I mentioned before,that's a court order.That's a summons from the court and you have to go.Again, you could end up being fined,you could be held in contempt and serve jail time.You don't want that.So what I would do is just say to my agency,I have a subpoena.I have a legal document, a court order that's telling me
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: I have to go to court.So how can we best work this out so that I can go to courtand not be held in contempt, but at the same time,really honor the agency's policies and protocols.And again, that can be sort of a tricky thingand it depends on where you work and what state you're in.But really, if you get a subpoena, you have to go.
RACHAEL LEBLOND: Yeah.Seems pretty simple.
EMMA HETHERINGTON: Yeah.
RACHAEL LEBLOND: Once you're in courtand you're testifying, what's the best way to advocatefor your client, or in some cases,it sounds like you're a former client?
EMMA HETHERINGTON: Sure.So this can also be really tricky.So there are times that you might be subpoenaed-- sofor example, let's say that you are a parent's therapistand your client's children are currently in foster careand your client hasn't been necessarily completelyfollowing their case plan.
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: Maybe they're in violation of a couple things.And you say, oh, well, if I go and I testify in court, will Ihave to work with this person, I need them to trust me.I need them to continue to work with me,otherwise I can't do my job.And then you also worry about that client confidentiality.Now, I think the best way to dealwith that is meet with your client ahead of time and say,
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: I've been subpoenaed and I'm going to go and testifyabout these things.And talk to them not just about their weaknessesbut about their strengths.So that when the day that you do go in court, one,they're not really thrown off and surprised by itand they know what you're going to say.You warn them ahead of time, I have to do this.I've a court order telling me I have to do this.I'm pretty sure they're going to ask me questions
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: about your compliance with your case plan,and I'm going to have to be honestand say, well, I know that there are some things that they'renot compliant with.Well, but then you can also say, however, I'mgoing to make sure that I focus a lot on your strengthsand that I talk about the ways that you are compliantand how you're making really great progress.I think that that is one way you can work with your client
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: to say, I have to do this, there'sa court order saying I have to do this,but you can still trust me.And even though I might have to say these things in courtand talk to them about they're true or not,and then also talk to them about maybe those reasons.The child welfare system is very difficult for parents.Most of the parents that you're seeing in the child welfaresystem are low income.
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: They might have multiple jobs.They don't have jobs where they can just take leave,taking multiple hours a week off of work in an hourly pay jobwithout benefits or health care or like I mentionedbefore, sick or annual leave every single week to godo-- you have to go to parenting classes.You have to go to individual therapy,you have to go to family therapy.
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: You've got to make your family visits.You might have domestic violence counseling, anger management,substance abuse counseling.There might be all sorts of servicesthat you have to do which could add upto multiple hours a week, which can be verystressful on a family where you're already dealingwith hourly wage jobs and low income
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: and you don't have time off of work.On top of that, if you lose your job, you lose your income,you could lose your housing, and then how are yougoing to get your kids back.So it's very, very stressful.So I think another way that you can advocatefor your client in court is talk to themand to figure out if they are not compliant with services,why.Are there those sort of social economic reasons
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: out there that you can then go and say,well, it makes sense to me that they're notable to always make their parenting classes because Iknow that you know they're working this job that is hourlyand they have to go when they're scheduledand they don't have time off.With children, you can do something similar.So you sit down with your child client.
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: Kids understand a lot more than you would think.One thing that frustrates me more than anythingis this assumption that children can't understandwhat's happening around them.Explain to them what's going on.Hey, we have this hearing coming upand I'm going to be talking to the judge,and I'm going to say some things,and this is what I'm going to talk to the judge about.And I want you to know that I'm also
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: going to make sure that the judge knows these things thatare really positive about you.So maybe the child's been gettingin trouble at school or trouble in their foster home.I work with teenagers, so maybe therewas a recent runaway incident or somethinghaving to do with marijuana or whatever it is.
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: And just say, look, I'm going to haveto talk a little bit about that, but I'm alsogoing to talk about when we do work togetherand when we're talking that there are these reallywonderful things about you.And there are maybe reasons that you are doing these things,and they might be trauma-related and explain it to your client.I think that-- and a social workermaybe better to answer this piece than me,
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: but from a legal perspective, I tryto set up my clients in such a waythat there are as few unknowns as possible in the courtroom.And so if your client can see what's coming,then that will harm them a lot less then all of a suddenthey just feel like they're blindsided.And this person that they're supposed to be able to trustand that they are working with and talking to and telling some
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: of the worst parts of their life to every weeksuddenly betrayed them in the courtroom.And I think, again, there's ways to get around it is reallyworking with your client.And then also making sure that the answers that you'regiving in court are that, like I mentioned,that mixture of maybe there are some challenges in my client'scase, but here are the strengths.
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: So really try to be strengths-basedwhen you're advocating for your client.And I do it all the time on the legal side.I might have to go in and advocate for somethingmy client wants where they recently ran away,they got caught with drugs, whateverit is, all these things.They got in trouble at school, and I have to figure out a way
EMMA HETHERINGTON [continued]: how can I now make this strengths-based.Instead of just making it this childis out of control and badly behaved and allthese negative things, how can I make this strengths-basedin some way.And then there are going to be timesthat you might not have a lot of strengths-based things to say,but that can happen.And in those cases, again, I think justbeing honest to your client so they're not blindsided by it.
RACHAEL LEBLOND: That's all excellent advice.Thank you so much for talking to us about thisfrom your perspective.I think it's really crucial to be able--for social workers to understand the legal side of it,especially since being called to court is such a common thing.So thank you so much for your insights.I really appreciate it.
EMMA HETHERINGTON: Thank you for having me.[MUSIC PLAYING]
Courtroom Advocacy and Skills
View Segments Segment :
Emma Hetherington, JD, clinical assistant professor, School of Law, University of Georgia, discusses courtroom advocacy skills for social workers.
Emma Hetherington, JD, clinical assistant professor, School of Law, University of Georgia, discusses courtroom advocacy skills for social workers.