This morning I had an instructive performance that was somewhat complex, and as part of my working out my complex feelings about it, I will write, as is my fashion. So, I got up this morning and dressed up for a trial that was expected to last up to four days. I was not on trial, but as a party of the case, I was there as the court appointed special advocate of an elementary schooler whose mother was about to be on trial for the termination of parental rights. I made may way through the streets to the CASA office, parked my car, and walked to the courthouse. After passing through the security and recollecting my belongings, I inquired at the information desk as to which courtroom the case was in and climbed up the stairs to the third floor. Arriving there I chatted with the foster parents, who are the kiddo’s paternal grandparents, and with the family members of theirs that were there, most of whom I had seen last night when visiting them for my monthly CASA visit. After that I went inside where I chatted with the people there. The mother had an adopted mother (it’s a long story) there to support her who was anxious about how things were going to go.
While I was outside again to do more chatting, there was a great deal of fevered negotiations, and when I returned inside it was time to sign the stipulation, after reading it, that the mother would voluntarily relinquish her parental rights for her kiddo and that there would be mediation to try to establish what degree of future contact between the kiddo and the mother and that side of the family would exist. Of course, there was a great deal of mutual distrust and concerns about the way that the other party would behave, and as a neutral party (albeit one with my own perspective), my CASA supervisor and I kept friendly with everyone and kept our own counsel until everyone was gone. After we all signed the stipulation the judge came in and asked the mother a few questions and offered to have another judge deal with the case because he had previously been a judge in juvenile court where the mother had appeared but the mother was fine with that. The mother once tried to talk about being clean and sober, at which point her attorney politely but firmly cut her off. The rest of us who were sitting before the judge, which included the Assistant Attorney General for the case, the DHS caseworker, the attorney for the kiddo, and myself, all made brief comments before the court in which we agreed that the stipulation was in the best interests of the kiddo, and then the case was closed, pending another permanency hearing in about a month.
One of the questions that the judge said struck me as particularly interesting. He asked if there had been any coercion towards the mother to make her give up her parental rights. She said, of course, that there wasn’t, but I am not sure that everyone would agree with that. I don’t think that anyone literally twisted her arm, but there was definitely coercion, albeit of a subtle kind. Let us examine the scene. It is a courtroom. The judge sits on a chair higher than the audience, and there is a corrections officer as well as a couple of court employees inside. The mother is in an orange jumpsuit (more on that anon) and her attorney is telling her that she doesn’t have much of a case, an opinion that is nearly universally held within the courtroom, and so she had best settle this case and get the best possible deal rather than fight it out and get nothing at all for all the embarrassment and stress of a trial. All of this is coercion. It is not unreasonable coercion, but it is coercion nonetheless. The solemnity of a trial, the fact that everyone else was dressed formally in the courtroom while the mother was in that orange jumpsuit, all of that contributes to an atmosphere of seriousness where the mother was at a heavy disadvantage. She had one lawyer, and one person supporting her in the courtroom, while the state could draw on plenty of support, including myself, if that was necessary.
The odds are that it would not have been necessary. Why was the mother in an orange jumpsuit with a corrections officer sitting not very far away from her? As it happens, yesterday afternoon the mother had failed a drug test in front of her Probation Officer and had been put in jail pending an arraignment that was to take place later this afternoon. She had violated probation a couple of times previously and had failed a urine analysis and was appealing the third probation violation that would have sent her to jail for 90 days or so, and the swab analysis showing positive meth use, combined with a confession on her part that she had been unable to deal with the stress and that she was pregnant with her boyfriend’s baby and that her boyfriend had given her the drugs, and that she was living with him, something that DHS had not been aware of. All of this information was added to the trial memorandum that was sent to all of the parties yesterday evening, and it made for sobering and reflective reading on my part while I was engaging in my monthly visit with my CASA kiddo and her grandparents. It is not as if this particular incident was the only one that would have been brought up, as the case included information going back to the mother’s difficult childhood, which included child abuse and a pregnancy as a teenager. There is a generational pattern of failure here, and the mother would have had to answer for a large part of it today, something she could not have been looking forward to, and something that was made very clear to her.
All of this is coercion. Again, that is not to say that all coercion is bad, but dealing with the power of government arrayed against you, having even your advocates and defenders telling you that throwing yourself on the mercy of the court is a better option than trying to fight it out when you have little or no chance of winning, and being given promises of a process by which you might get something you want but no guarantees, all of that is coercion. To be sure, most people do not do drugs and find themselves involved in legal trouble, at least I don’t think that is a common experience. However, we are all at least sometimes involved in coercive environments where someone who is engaged in coercion is very much interested in having the people brought before his (or her) authority proclaim that there was any coercion involved. There is a certain theatricality involved. The boss calls you into his office, or the minister says ominously that you need to chat. Even when people in that particular position are trying to be polite and kind, and they certainly do not want to feel as if they are abusing their position, the reality of their position does put a certain degree of coercion on one’s interactions. There is obviously a reason for the conversation, and obviously that positional power is being leveraged for a particular outcome. Whenever that is the case, there is coercion. Whether or not that coercion is ever admitted or acknowledged by the one using it or recognized by the person dealing with it, that coercion exists.
What do we do about this knowledge, though? In my opinion, the subtle coercion of positional power needs to be made explicit. Rather than use that power to lean on someone while pretending that we are nice people, why not be out in the open about having the power and authority and wanting a particular outcome. If someone is doing something that we do not want them to do, or not doing something that we want them to do, or not doing something well enough, it is easy enough to have a conversation about expectations, especially if we express a willingness to wheel and deal as an equal. So long as someone’s position is in the room but is not acknowledged, there is coercion in whatever is discussed or agreed to. It is only when that position is acknowledged and consciously rejected that there is a chance of having open and honest conversation. We may not like the open and honest exchange of ideas, but we should at least not pretend that no coercion exists when it is part of the structure of the situations and events that we are involved in.