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Press Release: Alarming drop in Missouri Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline calls

Department of Social Services stresses importance of reporting suspected child abuse and neglect concerns of children unsafe at home.

JEFFERSON CITY, MO – Since March 11, 2020 the Department of Social Services (DSS) has experienced an approximate 50 percent drop in Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline Calls. “As a law enforcement officer for more than 20 years, I understand when a household is unsafe how vulnerable children can be,” Governor Mike Parson said. “This dramatic drop in Hotline reports is truly alarming.  I know Missourians are very focused on COVID-19, but we must remain vigilant in our efforts to ensure every Missouri child remains safe from abuse and neglect.”

“This low number of calls is very abnormal for the Hotline and our worst fear is that children are unsafe while at home, said Jennifer Tidball, Acting Director, Department of Social Services. “Teachers and child care providers are mandated reporters of suspected child abuse and neglect and are often our state’s best radar on a child’s well being because children are in school or at child care each day.”  Educators and child care providers make the largest number of Hotline reports and without that daily contact with a child, a child’s safety could be seriously impacted. The Department of Social Services, Children’s Division is also very concerned that social isolation and the unprecedented pressures parents and families are experiencing are elevating the risk for child abuse or neglect. “If you are an educator, child care provider, or anyone who has concerns for a child you think may be at risk, please call the Hotline,” Tidball said. “Children’s Division workers are still out there connecting with families, providing assistance, and making sure kids are safe.  But we can’t help that child if we don’t get a report to the Hotline.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Social Services urges every Missourian to be especially attentive to the safety and wellbeing of children, and strongly encourages anyone who suspects child abuse or neglect to call our toll-free hotline at 1-800-392-3738. The Missouri Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline is answered 24-hours a day, every day, all year round. Callers can report anonymously.

The Department of Social Services is committed to serving the needs of Missouri citizens during COVID-19 pandemic.  Information regarding the department’s response to the pandemic is available online https://dss.mo.gov/covid-19.

The mission of the Department of Social Services is to empower Missourians to live safe, healthy, and productive lives.  Visit dss.mo.gov to learn more about the Department of Social Services and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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You NEED this, and here’s why

Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way right off the bat:
I am a lawyer. I make a living helping people with legal issues. I am passionate about what I do, dedicated to my clients, and expensive. I write blog posts to market my business and make money. And yes, I am trying to sell you something.

If any of that turns you off, you can stop reading right now.

But, if you want to hear a story that completely changed my outlook on life, then by all means, please keep reading.

First, a little about me. My practice is focused on family law and child welfare. I work with families at some of the hardest times in their lives and help them reach resolutions that will help them reach their dreams. It is draining work, and sometimes, it makes me think that lawyers who are not litigators get off real easy with a prestigious title. My place has always been in working face-to-face with clients and advocating in a courtroom.

Now, the story.

I was recently in court on a child welfare case. We had a young boy, barely school-aged, who had been severely abused and neglected by his mother. The situation became so horrendous that we were in court having a trial on whether the mom’s parental rights should be terminated and the boy put up for adoption. This is not necessarily an uncommon type of case for me to be working on, but it is certainly one of the most serious in nature. Terminating someone’s parental rights is not something to be done lightly.

Whenever I have a case like this, I make a point to become familiar with the background story of the family. For this little boy, he was born to two married heterosexual parents. They both worked, they had a small savings, and they rented a place to live. They were just fine financially, probably what someone would consider a typical middle class family. They were sharing a car, saving for their first house, and making dreams for their family years down the road.

Not long after the child was born, the dad died suddenly and unexpectedly. Without his income, the mom couldn’t afford the rent and ended up living in her car until that broke down. She turned to a life of begging and prostitution just to feed herself and her child. She no longer had health insurance, so she could not afford medicine or doctor’s appointments. Someone she encountered living on the streets raped her and her son. Between the grief, trauma, and her untreated anxiety and depression, she became what a medical expert described as ‘psychotic.’ She hurt her child both physically and emotionally. When this was discovered and reported, the child was taken into foster care. He had been living with a foster parent for over 4 years.

Are trials to terminate parental rights a normal part of my job description? Yes, they are.

Are stories like this common? Absolutely not.

As the trial went on, I watched this mother in the courtroom. What started off as “just anxiety and depression” had, without treatment, turned into much more dangerous diagnoses. She watched as her counselors and psychiatrists testified about her lack of ability to parent her son because of her health. She heard each of them say that if she had only been on her medications consistently, it may never have gotten this bad. My heart broke when I heard them say that no matter how much treatment she were to get now, she would most likely not be able to parent her son by herself until he reached adulthood.

Now remember, I’m a lawyer. I played my role in the trial, did my job, and compartmentalized my emotions. When I got home, I hugged my husband, looked him in the eye, and said, “we need to look at our estate plan.”

Yup, that was me. The litigator, the lawyer who can handle any emotion, and the breadwinner of my family. I always thought estate planning was boring. Sitting behind a desk drafting documents and working with numbers all the time is not something I ever really enjoyed. Sure, I have at times felt professionally obligated to advocate for everyone to have a will and a healthcare directive, but I only truly saw the benefit in very certain situations.

Not anymore.

If you can tell me with complete confidence that you could never fall into the same place as the woman in that story, then stop reading and go about your day. I’ll tell you right now, though, that I don’t believe you. The truth is that any one of us could end up in that situation. This woman was living an honorable, ‘normal’ life until an unexpected event through her routine up in flames. That could happen to any of us at any time.

Maybe you don’t have a mental health diagnosis like she did…but are you certain that you could handle immeasurable grief without needing some help?

Maybe you have more in savings than this woman did, or you have more income-earning potential. Do you have enough in the bank right now to get you through from today until the day you die, especially if you would be a single parent?

Maybe you have friends and family to help you, and that’s great. But have you actually talked to them about what you may need from them one day?

The truth is that no one can ever be truly prepared for everything this woman had to deal with. Life is all about throwing wrenches in our plans and throwing us for loops. That being said, there are some things that may have saved her from going as far down the hole as she did. It’s possible that if she had even one of these things, she may not have been sitting in a courtroom at serious risk of losing her son.

Do you have a life insurance policy that pays out enough to keep your loved ones financially protected if you die? Does it cover your major debts, funeral expenses, and living expenses for those you support?

Do you have guardians established for your children, and even yourself, so that you know exactly where to go for help? Have you talked with them about what would cause you to reach out to them for help, and what you expect from them when you do?

Do you have a healthcare directive (or living will) and a healthcare power of attorney so that your loved ones know what you want in case of a medical emergency? Have you had uncomfortable conversations about life support and life-altering medical procedures with those closest to you?

Have you talked to your partner about what each of you will do if the other one dies? Have you written down your plan so that you remember what you agreed to in moments of intense grief and other emotions?

If you haven’t done these things, then you need to. And I want to help you, because as much as I love going to court, I don’t want to be a lawyer in a courtroom watching you lose everything in your life that you love.

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At The Lien Law Firm, we help you develop a complete plan for emergency preparedness. Our flat-rate estate planning package includes a simple will, durable power of attorney, and healthcare directive (aka living will) to help you be prepared for an emergency. We will also provide you with specific resources and recommendations for any non-legal tools that will help you be prepared. To speak with our lawyer, call 314-722-8557 or click here to book a free phone consultation.

What I learned about lawyers while buying a car

I recently decided to get a new car. I started the process just like I recommend clients shop for a lawyer – I did my research, knew exactly what I needed, and asked questions of experts to make sure I understood the specifics (I’m really not a car person). Then came the hard part: getting what I wanted without getting ripped off.

I consulted friends and colleagues who were experienced with buying cars. I called multiple dealers, told them what I was willing to pay, and told them the best deal someone else could offer me. It took over a week of back and forth phone calls before I finally got the car I wanted at the price I wanted.

And you know what? All the dealers were giving me prices on the exact same car.

Not just the same make and model, but the same physical set of wheels. They were all going to get it from the same out-of-town dealership. When one told me there was no way to get it any cheaper, another dealer would undercut them. I had to go through 6 different sales reps at different dealerships before I finally found one who was honest with me, who took my budget seriously, and got me a great deal. And even now, I still have no idea if I actually got the best deal I possibly could have or if I was just so exhausted from the process that I went with the best offer I could get when I was at the end of my rope.

The process made me think a lot about the people who call my office looking for legal help.

Looking for a lawyer is a lot like shopping for a car, but with one notable exception.

When shopping for a lawyer, you should do your research. Make sure you find a lawyer who knows the area of law you need assistance with. They should have knowledge, experience, and in some cases (like family law), they should have a focused practice that shows they are truly dedicated to certain areas of the law. When you meet with a lawyer for the first time, you should be confident that they have everything you need to help you succeed. Talking to them on the phone or meeting them for a consultation should be like taking a test drive – you know they have what you need, just need to make sure it feels right.

Here’s the difference: Lawyers should not haggle when it comes to their fees.

If you need a lawyer, then chances are you have an underlying situation that is stressful, unpleasant, and/or undesirable to deal with on your own. You are probably on some kind of deadline and you have a million questions. With family court, you have probably heard myths, rumors, and horror stories that leave you wondering exactly what is going to happen with your case and your family. I have never, in 800+ clients, had someone approach me without some degree of nervousness. Hiring a lawyer is more than just seeking professional help or opinion. It is asking someone else, someone you probably don’t know, to help you solve intimate problems and craft a family life that you will be living with every single day.

A service like that should not come with negotiable fees.

You should have complete confidence that they are just as focused on and dedicated to you as they are to every other client.

You should get the feeling that while your lawyer is going to charge you for their services, you are more than just a source of income for them.

You should be able to see that your lawyer’s primary goal is to help you achieve success on your terms, regardless of how much your bills are each month.

My new car gets me from point A to point B so that I can do the things I need to do. Did I get the best deal I possibly could have? I will never know. But in the end, it is what I do at those different points that matters far more than the vehicle that got me there. When you are shopping for that professional “vehicle” to help you create the life you want, focus on who will help you get to your destination without leaving you with unanswered questions.

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At The Lien Law Firm, all clients have the same options for financing legal services. Call us at 314-722-8557 for a no-cost consultation where you can have a frank, honest conversation with a lawyer about your case and your budget.

What To Pay Your Lawyer For (and what NOT to pay for)

Before you even start reading, let me give you the moral of the story:  Look closely, very closely, at how a lawyer will bill you before you hire them.

People ask me all the time, “How much will my divorce cost?”

If I had a crystal ball, I would answer that question every time someone walks into my office. While I may be a lawyer, I am also human, and I understand how difficult it is to budget for something when you don’t actually know how much it will cost.

Unfortunately, there is no way to tell how much a case will cost in family court because it really does depend. In most cases, attorneys bill on an hourly rate, so the total expense is largely determined by how much time your lawyers spends on your case.

While you may not be able to control the total expense, you can make sure you are informed about what exactly your lawyer will bill you for. There are certain things you can expect to pay your lawyer for, and some common pitfalls to avoid when choosing a lawyer to represent you.

In my opinion, based on industry standard, business policy, and general fairness, here is what you should expect to pay your lawyer for, and how you can minimize the unnecessary components of those expenses:

  1. Court Time. This one is, hopefully, the most obvious. You can expect to pay your lawyer for any time spent in court on your case. This generally includes any time you spend sitting and waiting for your case to be called. You can make the best use of this time by using it to talk with your lawyer about case strategy and future plans. As a lawyer, I would much rather spend that waiting time talking to you about your questions and concerns rather than billing you to just sit around waiting.
  2. Emails and Phone Calls. While it may seem trivial at times, phone calls and emails take up a large chunk of your lawyer’s time. This can be unnerving for people because you quite literally have no control over how often other people will call or email me regarding your case, especially the opposing party or opposing counsel. When hiring a lawyer, ask them how they handle billing for emails and phone calls. Do they log every single contact and charge a minimum for it, or do they go by actual time spent? You can minimize these fees by making sure that you are not the one ringing up the bill. Consolidate your questions and ask them clearly when possible. Also, while it may be tempting, try not to ramble on and on to your lawyer. I absolutely want to understand your feelings, but I cannot help you process things like a therapist.
  3. Research. Family law in Missouri is not very heavy on legal research. Most issues are determined by statute and have been cemented in the law for quite some time. That being said, families are constantly evolving. If your case involves an area of the law that is still arguable, then legal research may be required to understand what the law actually is. It may also involve motions, hearings, and arguments to determine how the law applies to your case. Before paying your lawyer to do extensive legal research, look closely at what the issue is and how it actually related to your case. What will the likely outcome be? Even if the law is in your favor, how much will it impact the actual outcome of your case? I once had a case where the opposing party paid his lawyer what I am sure was several hundred dollars to do research and draft a brief on an issue that my client was in complete agreement with. If opposing counsel had asked me in advance, he probably could have avoided doing all that work, and charging his client all that money.
  4. Drafting Documents. Paperwork is inevitable for lawyers. A case lives and breathes on the different pleadings that are filed with the court. You can expect to pay your lawyer to draft documents. To keep this under control, make sure you provide information to your lawyer in an organized and manageable way – fill out the forms they ask you for, organize your documents in advance, and offer to do as much of the paperwork as possible on your own. It can sometimes take me twice as long to draft a brief using piles of notes from clients than it would using a more organized system, like The Parenting Planner.

There are also some things that are perfectly ethical to charge for, but that tend to make a bill go up very quickly. Be very careful before hiring a lawyer who charges for any of the following, and make sure you understand exactly how you will be billed:

  1. Travel Time. It is perfectly reasonable for a lawyer to charge you for travel time to and from court, meetings, and other things related to your case. That being said, I consider it poor taste to bill a client the same rate for travel as I would for going to court or preparing case strategy. Look for a lawyer who bills a more standard mileage rate for travel, if they even bill for travel at all.
  2. Copying and Postage. If you need a huge copy or mailing project done, then you can absolutely expect to pay for it. If your lawyer is charging you for every single letter that goes out, then that may be excessive. Make sure you know in advance how you are going to be billed for paperwork. You can minimize these fees easily by finding a lawyer who operates an electronic and paperless practice.
  3. Meals. I have heard of lawyers passing on fees for meals to clients, especially if those meals are purchased during client meetings or breaks in court. While this may be legitimate, you should be careful of how this will increase your bill. By the time we get to this level of billing, I advise clients to be very careful about knowing where their money is going. If your lawyer does charge you for meals, then ask to meet in their office instead of out in public.

Remember one thing, if nothing else: The money you pay a lawyer is yours until they earn it. It is your right to know what your lawyer will charge you for and how their billing practices work. Getting answers to your questions up front will prevent you from being in a sticky position later.

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Do you have questions about money and your family court case? Call The Lien Law Firm at 314-722-8557 for a no-cost consultation where you can have a frank, honest conversation with a lawyer about your case and your budget.

Cold, Flu, and Family Court

Everywhere you turn, it seems like someone is sick, getting sick, or just getting over being sick. The COVID-19 (the coronavirus) is spreading this year, causing widespread fear and panic. This is especially true for newly single adults without good insurance coverage, and more so for parents of children with an uncooperative co-parent.

Unfortunately, I have seen numerous situations where a child’s medical care has been put on hold because divorced parents could not get it together. I have seen arguments over who is supposed to carry health insurance, who has copies of the insurance information, and who gets to make healthcare decisions delay everything from routine physicals to urgent surgeries. It is not a pleasant experience, and in the end, the children are the ones who suffer the most.

You can avoid situations like these by getting your ducks in a row now. If you have a divorce or child custody order, follow these steps to make sure you are ready for a cold/flu/corona crisis:

  1. Take care of YOU. Before you can do anything for your family, you need to take care of yourself. If you are newly divorced, then you may have lost insurance coverage or other healthcare benefits through your former spouse’s employer. Make sure that you have a new insurance policy and a primary care physician who has all of your medical records. Execute your living will (aka healthcare directive) and Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare so that your wishes are clear and you know who will be taking care of you if necessary.
  2. Understand your court order. If you share children with a co-parent, make sure you are crystal clear about what your court order says. You need to know who has authority to make healthcare decisions, who is carrying health insurance, and who is responsible for payment. This is important not only so that you know what to expect and/or demand of the other parent, but also to make sure you do not act in contempt of court yourself. If you have questions about your court order, a one-time session with a lawyer should help clear it up so that you know exactly what it says.
  3. Get the documents in order. If the other parent is responsible for carrying health insurance, are you sure they have an active policy? Do you know what that policy covers? Do you have a copy of the insurance card and other information you would need to seek emergency care? If not, you need to get this information and keep it in a safe place. If you are the one responsible for carrying insurance on your kids, have you given this information to the other parent? If not, doing so will be the best way to help prevent an allegation of contempt in the event of an emergency. If you cannot get the necessary information from the other parent, or if they will not accept it from you (yes, that really happens), contact a lawyer to help.
  4. Talk it out. If possible, talk through a crisis plan with your co-parent. Make sure you each know who your kids’ healthcare providers are, where you will go if they get sick, and how you will contact the other parent. Be on the same page with reminding your kids to wash their hands so that they have the same routine with both parents. Not all parents can co-parent this effectively, but if you can, it will help make cold and flu season much less stressful.
  5. Know your resources. The new coronavirus looks to be mandating a quarantine that could last for weeks. Do you have what you need to stay inside your house for that long? Have your delivery resources ready for prescriptions, groceries, and other supplies. Our favorite delivery services are Imperfect Foods, Hungryroot, and Amazon Prime.

Cold and flu season is stressful, and this year it is even more stressful because of the new virus. If you get your legal information in order now, you will save yourself a lot of stress and grief in the event of a healthcare situation later on down the road.

 

If you need to talk to a lawyer to get you ready for cold and flu season, call The Lien Law Firm at 314-722-8557. Our paperless practice allows for everything from paperwork to live meetings to be done virtually if you are concerned about germ transmission.

Let’s Talk Money (Time for Truth)

Being a family law attorney, there are certain things that I have gotten used to hearing from my clients over time.

“It’s not my daughter’s fault.”

“I don’t want anything bad for him, I just can’t be married to him.”

And, “It’s not about the money.”

That last one, whenever I hear it, makes me feel a bit sad. It makes me wonder what that woman was told or what stories they heard that made her feel like she has to say that divorce is not about the money. I know exactly what she means: her life, her kids, and her future potential are her primary focus points. I get that. As a lawyer, however, I have to be honest when I tell you that family court is very much about the money, and if you do not pay attention to it, you may end up losing.

I once had a woman who was so determined to fight her divorce at trial that she did not realize how much she was spending on legal fees. By the time she ran out of money, she realized that she could have settled for a much better outcome than she got at trial, and she would not have been left with an extra bill to pay on top of it.

There was also this time a mother was so determined not to agree to anything less than sole custody that she spent all her savings on negotiating something unreasonable and ended up having to represent herself at trial.

Women, for some reason, feel the need to ignore the financial component of family court, or at least to make it look like they are ignoring that aspect when talking to others.

Well, here’s the truth: The clients who do not pay attention to the money are the ones who realize, and often realize too late, how important it is to be informed and make sound financial decisions right from the beginning.

When thinking about money and your family court case, consider these important financial elements:

  1. Child Support.  Perhaps the most common financial element of any child custody case is child support. Many women have confused this with someone’s obligation to support their ex-spouse (spousal maintenance). Others think of it as charity. Child support is actually one of the simplest money-related parts of family court – it is the obligation of both parents to support their children. Nothing more, nothing less.
  2. Spousal Maintenance (aka Alimony).  Spousal maintenance, formerly called alimony, is a bit of a gray area. Different counties, and sometimes even different judges, have different standards for how to determine if you are entitled to receive maintenance from your former spouse. It is important for you to know how your county and the judge assigned to your case determines maintenance payments if your case goes to trial.
  3. Court Costs and Services.  In all likelihood, the fees you will pay to the court will be the smallest expenses associated with your divorce, especially if you hire a lawyer to represent you. The court usually requires a one-time filing fee. The initial documents and some select motions throughout your case may incur a fee to be formally served on the other party. Other than that, fees from the court will be minimal. If your case involves court-ordered services like therapy, counseling, or other social service interventions, then those services may cost you out-of-pocket if they are not covered by your health insurance.
  4. Legal Fees.  The biggest financial burden for most people in family court is hiring an attorney and paying legal fees. When hiring a lawyer, make sure you understand where every penny of your money is going to go. Have a clear understanding about how legal fees work and what your attorney will be billing you for. In many cases, you may not even need to hire a lawyer for a full retainer when you can do legal coaching instead. Or, if you do, there may be creative financing options available to you that you have not even thought of yet. Most horror stories about how much people spend on family court cases are about attorney’s fees.

We will be talking about these money issues and more throughout the rest of “Money March” here at The Lien Law Firm. If you have questions about money and family court, please submit them on our Facebook page so that you can get direct answers to your specific questions!

 

The Lien Law Firm’s “Time for Truth” blog series focuses on debunking common myths and misconceptions about family law issues. You can read more at www.lienlawfirm.com. Do you have questions about money and your family court case? Call The Lien Law Firm at 314-722-8557 for a no-cost consultation where you can have a frank, honest conversation with a lawyer about your money questions.