Supervising Attorney Lisa Kay Williams is celebrating her 25th anniversary with Youth, Rights & Justice this year. In this interview, Lisa reflects on her work as an advocate for children in foster care, and the issues that are still faced by children and families involved in the child welfare system.
You’ve been working in public defense for 25 years, what first led you to this work? Why did you choose juvenile defense?
I have an undergraduate degree in psychology. In college, I had planned to get a master’s degree in psychology and become a therapist or licensed clinical social worker, working with kids in a therapeutic role. I had an internship in one of Iowa’s in-patient psychiatric treatment facilities for children. Almost all kids there were involved the foster care system. It was really the intersection between children’s mental health and foster care that led me to law school. Without knowing or having words, I knew something else was going on for these kids and I wanted to know what it was. Through the eyes of the kids in this facility, I saw their experiences in foster care and how it led to their need for placement in a psychiatric care facility.
I found that most kids with acute needs, rather than having an organic mental health issue that needed to be treated, were actually just very poorly served in the foster care and mental health systems. I continued to confirm that initial view in my practice of public defense.
When you first started this work, what was most surprising to you about public defense?
The most surprising and frustrating thing I found out about public defense is that even when professionals know what kids and families need, meeting that need, whatever it is, can sometimes be very difficult. I thought that the difficult part would be identifying solutions, and it can be, but the number of barriers we have to doing right by kids and families was really surprising to me. Lots of well-intended professionals work in a system that is fundamentally flawed.
How have things changed during your career?
For much of my career I thought the best thing to do was stop being a public defender because I was participating in a system that was setting everyone up for failure. There came a time where I thought it would be worse to continue to try to do my best in a system set up for failure than to leave. But I stayed and continued to work as hard as I could. And then we began to have the discussion around a better way to do things and really thinking about best practices in representing children youth and parents. The Parent Child Representation Program (PCRP), which was implemented in Multnomah County in July 2020, is incredible and is a much better way of serving children and parents. PCRP facilitates attorneys meeting practice standards that have always been aspirational but impossible to meet due to crushingly high caseloads.
Other things that have significantly changed is the evolution of developmental brain science. It has really benefitted our understanding of how to better serve kids and youth. I also think that research on trauma has improved our systems and made a fundamental difference in how services for kids and families are accessed and offered, and in our understanding of how children and families should be supported.
Do you see outcomes improving for our clients? What is the biggest challenge facing our clients?
SB 1008 (2019) is contributing to improved outcomes for clients. I think we’re just starting to see some real benefits and improved outcomes based on the PCRP in Multnomah County. And I think that we’ll continue to see some improved outcomes. One of the biggest challenges that I see for clients in the child welfare system is that there remains a significant arbitrariness to a family’s outcome. Outcomes depend on who your caseworker is, who your resource parent is, and what access to services you have. I’ve always said that if I could do one thing in my career it would be to remove that level of arbitrariness of an outcome. Every single child and family that we serve should have an opportunity at the best outcome. And we are not there yet.
What inspires you? What motivates you?
What continues to inspire me is seeing the incredible strength that our clients demonstrate and their resilience in extremely difficult times. The difficulty that our clients face is hard to comprehend unless you are a direct service provider or have lived experience. I believe that success breeds success, but also that failures can multiply. Our systems and society create failures for individuals. We often talk about giving clients a second chance, but what I’m fighting for is not a second chance. Really, I’m fighting for the first chance that our clients never got but everyone assumes they did.
What advice would you give a new lawyer, just starting out? Or someone who is considering public defense as a career?
This is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s hard work. The hours are long, the stress is high and the pay is lower than other legal professionals earn. I think the most important thing to remember is that your clients direct the representation; you are a voice for them. You also have to make sure that you’re taking really good care of yourself. Because your job is to walk alongside people and be their voice and you can’t be an effective advocate without taking care of yourself. The work can be all consuming and it can be difficult to not write another email, not research another legal issue. At some point you just have to walk away from your computer.
What made you choose YRJ? What has kept you here for 25 years?
What has kept me here are the people—both the clients and the staff serving the clients. Having incredibly smart, talented, and committed colleagues is really motivating. This work makes me want to show up every day for both my clients and the staff.