When I was first starting out in IT I had a senior colleague who commented to me about all the throw away knowledge she’d collected and tossed over the years. She talked about learning early versions of VB, an obscure OS for an old HP minicomputer, the aging phone system we had, and all kinds of other things she’d learned in her career that was, or was about to become, useless knowledge.
Liz taught me a lot of things, but that basic observation about spending lots of time acquiring information that promptly becomes useless stands out in my mind as a useful caution. It has also become something I’ve try to plan around and compensate for as I advance. For example I almost never bother to memorize an API: I can generally keep the documentation handy which is often updated when new features are added where my memory would lag behind.
It’s also part of why I love puzzles: they keep my brain in practice at gaining and tossing aside detailed information. There is just about nothing as useless as the things you teach yourself while doing a jigsaw puzzle. The small details that allow you to associate pieces with parts of the puzzle. The ways you sort pieces for a particular puzzle. All kinds of things that really only apply to the puzzle you’re doing and not any other.
There are plenty of studies that show we need to keep our brains active doing different things to help keep them healthy – some even look at the value of puzzles. Programming, and other tech work, certainly does that by default, but as any of us works with a specific platform we get used to the patterns it uses and therefore slow our rate of learning. Puzzles also are good for finding practical applications for basic computer science concepts.
Sorting in particular is something that puzzles encourage different approaches not all of which are routinely needed in development work but are good to remember are out there. The concepts of the core of radix sorts – or bucket sort – are extremely useful, and can even be used as a form of compression for a puzzle. My puzzle desk is a bit too small to allow me to spread out all the pieces of most incomplete puzzles, but digging through all the pieces over and over is just a waste of time. So I often find a basic pattern I can do quick sorts by, and stack up pieces by color, or those with book covers, or other other easy to quantify detail. Then as I move through assembling the puzzle I can grab a stack of those pieces and do another round of sorting and assembly. Like a radix sort, you don’t need to first pass to be useful to make progress on the overall solution.
Liz was right. I too learned and dropped VB; that stupidly designed phone system was mine until we replaced it with one slightly less stupidly designed; Drupal 4, 5, and 6 all had particularities I recall only to be nostalgic about the past; and the things I’m teaching myself these days about Salesforce will one day be equally useless. That’s okay, it’s what I signed up for, and if you are finding your own way in this field it’s a reality you should plan on being a part of the rest of your career.
Developers need to be able to in write their primary spoken languages as well as they can writing in their primary programming languages. It takes effort and practice, just like programming does. And you get rusty if you stop for awhile, just like in programming. I started blogging in part to make sure I was writing on a regular basis. When I worked at AFSC I was writing and editing everyday for my work, but the next two jobs I had didn’t expect much writing from me. I’ve written before about the value of my liberal arts education, and the last few weeks have been a testament to effort Hamilton put into making sure I learned the fundamentals of writing.
In my new job we work hard to provide a great deal of information to our clients and to make sure they can understand that information. While each team member brings a different set of strengths and weaknesses to the projects, we are all expected to communicate clearly with each other and our clients. All of us are expected to explain our parts of the project so that our clients can understand our advice and make can informed choices about how the projects should proceed.
In the last month I’ve been responsible for presenting basic overviews of platforms and highly technical reviews of parts of projects. I have contributed to large architectural design documents and focused detailed designs for small subsystems. All these materials were done collaboratively by teams of highly skilled technical people, but our client’s technical skills are much wider ranging. Often they are experts in other areas who need to use the tools we’re building. Others are experts in the technology we work with, and we are serving as added capacity to their in-house teams. We are expected to explain ourselves equally well to all these people, which means we need to both be clear and thorough.
One of the things I try to bring to the project teams is a willingness and ability to edit and be edited. Because I spent time responsible for all the digital communications of a large organization, I have experience quickly and aggressively editing documents of all sizes. I also know how important it is to have an editor who catches your mistakes, and while I carefully review someone else’s work I am always supportive of anyone who is editing a section I wrote. Not everyone is equally comfortable with these roles, but they are things I believe all developers should try to master.
We have socially come to expect that technical people do not explain their work clearly. We are too often allowed to use a great deal of jargon, skip lightly over hard to understand details, and belittle those who cannot keep up. Complex systems are indeed complex so it does take effort to clearly explain and fully understand them. But the vast majority of developers are perfectly capable of explaining what we do when we take the time. And the vast majority of people are capable of understanding clear descriptions of our work.
Developers who are unwilling to take the time to learn to explain their work well do a disservice to their colleagues, clients, and themselves. Their work will suffer from a lack of good feedback, and so will not be as good as it could have been with more support. Those weaknesses will become bad user experiences, bugs, and other flaws in their final products.
A well done code review (one that’s meant to be supportive and doesn’t include yelling) and a good edit aren’t that different. In both one person is looking over the work of another to try to understand it and check for errors. Done well both give a chance for the reviewer to learn from the material and to help the person whose work is being reviewed do their best work.
When we explain our work well we open ourselves of up for feedback. That feedback gives us chances to validate our designs, improve the experiences of our users, and generally create more awesome products.
Every time I go through a job search either as a candidate or reviewing applications I try to learn a few things to make sure I am better prepared in the future and to help friends looking for work and talent. I recently completed a job search, so I want to share what I learned this time around.
I found a great question for a candidate to ask: “What else should I have asked you?”
This is actually a question my wife and I started asking several years ago when we were buying large ticket items we didn’t know much about – like cars, houses, and HVAC systems. One of us, I don’t remember who, asked one of the salesman if there was anything he thought we should be asking him and his competitors. He gave us a couple small tips – likely things he thought he could answer better than his competition – and it gave us an insight into details he thought were important. Once we asked that question of all the sales people we had a list of questions to ask that covered more perspectives than we would have been able to figure out on our own.
It’s now a staple question we ask when starting anything new. Instead of trying to pretend to be experts we ask people for guidance. Often the answer is “No, I think you covered it.” but sometimes we learn things or are told about discounts, features, or services we would have otherwise missed. Outside of purchasing we’ve found the question can help spur conversations and get people to tell us things we need to know – it’s a question we use a lot as Guardian ad Litems.
Most good interviews include a time for the candidate to ask questions. This should not be a pro forma detail crammed in at the end. If the interviewer is taking your needs seriously they will give you several minutes for your questions that give you a chance to round out who you are as a candidate, this is particularly true when talking with the hiring manager (if they don’t take this seriously you should think about whether or not you want to work for that person). This portion of the interview is a critical chance to gather information about the organization, your potential role, their existing team, and vision of the future. It is also a chance to ask questions that highlight your experience and knowledge. Most advice you will find online will tell you to make sure you have a few questions you want to ask to try to draw out the information you need while showing off that you’re smart and talented. Doing this well can be hard. I discovered that having a simple, and reliably unusual, question that I can ask at the end gives a good last impression and this one has gained me unexpected insight more than once.
The exact wording isn’t important here. I’ve asked several versions:
Are there other things I should have asked but haven’t?
Are there questions you aren’t hearing from candidates that you expected?
What else do you think someone should be asking about before joining your team?
Are thing questions you would ask if you were in my shoes?
The idea is to ask an open ended question that shows you know there is always more information to be gained and gets them to think about things they haven’t shared with you, or with other candidates. The question alone often stands out, and if you get them to discuss something with you they didn’t discuss with others that helps you stand out in their minds even more. It also gives them a chance to talk about things they know and you don’t, which can help give a positive impression of you (this is same idea as dating advice that encourages getting your date to talk about themselves in part because it will make them think you’re smarter).
We all tend to want to know the same things when considering a job. This portion of the interview allows you to fill in gaps in their job ads and the conversation you’ve had so far. But since all job seekers want similar information they are asking similar questions. As for showing off, the hiring manager has likely already pre-selected a group that has shared backgrounds they are looking for so you aren’t going to easily stand out from that crowd of people with similar professional backgrounds. But by asking an unexpected question that puts the creativity on the interviewer you might be able to trigger a conversation that gives you that extra attention.
For me the question worked best in group interviews, because finding good questions is hard for me in that setting and it sometimes triggered discussion and debate within the team about things they wanted to hear candidates asking. It gave me a chance to hear a set of perspectives I wouldn’t have heard otherwise, and to see the team disagree about their vision for what’s needed. The most successful was when they fell into a mode of answer each other’s questions. For 15 minutes I moderated a discussion of what the team needed from their newest members and watched the internal team dynamics and politics played out in front of me. Usually the responses more mundane, but still helpful. Never did I feel like it was a foolish thing to have asked since the worst answer I got was a long pause and “Well that’s interesting, but I think we’ve covered everything I think you need to know.” followed by a quick check list of details the person thought it was important for candidates to know (the details of that list helped confirm why I didn’t want to work for that manager).
The question is also practical in a pinch. One of my interviews was rushed, I had just two hours to prepare after a first round interview so I didn’t have time to think of new things to ask. To add to the challenge the interviewer answered most of what I’d come up with before we got to my turn. I think I managed one or two detail questions that mostly clarified something she told me before I switched gears and asked something to the effect of “What else should I ask about before taking the job?” The question allowed me to stand out to her as asking questions that suggested I wanted to make my career move carefully (which was true and a good thing from their perspective too), and got the conversation into a productive place about the team’s role within a large organization. I start the job from that interview this week.
This is a guest post from my wife, and co-Guardian ad Litem, Elizabeth Georgian. You can read more about our Guardian ad Litem work in this previous post.
In a world that at times seems to grow increasingly uncaring, chaotic, and impossible to change, two sets of teenagers, a century apart, living remarkably different lives, may offer us a path forward.
On March 25, 1911, 145 textile workers perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. They died of smoke inhalation, flames, or from injuries sustained as they leapt down the elevator shaft or out of the ninth story windows. The factory owners had locked these young, largely immigrant women in their building so they could inspect their bags as they left and on that day no one remembered to free them.
Two years earlier, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory workers had gone on strike, as part of a larger effort on the part of textile workers across New York city. As these young women picketed, marched, and struck, police beat them, with the approval of many bystanders. The media paid little attention, except when a small number of wealthy women joined them in their protests.
Few non-working class New Yorkers cared that the children spent their days in factories not schools, immigrants lived in dire poverty, and working conditions were hazardous. It was only in death that they became human.
Newspapers, public officials, the wider world had begun to attach names to these Triangle workers by then: Rosie Bassino and her sister Irene; Max Lehrer and his brother Sam; Mary Goldstein; the Saracino sisters; Michela Marciano, who had survived an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius before emigrating to America; Rose Manofsky, whose little sister had lost her sole source of support; and Salvatore Maltese, who had buried every female in his household: his wife Catherine, his 20-year old daughter Lucia and his daughter Rosaria, who was – at 14 – the fire’s youngest victim.
Apathy and even hostility towards the labor movement finally changed to outrage, support, and eventually significant reform as these invisible women suddenly became visible.
One hundred years later, the official charge from the family court to Guardian ad Litems charges us with conducting an independent investigation so we can make recommendations to the court. To conduct those investigations, guardians have a right to sit in on all meetings about the teenagers we advocate for, visit their schools, talk to their teachers and doctors, and see where they live and meet with their caregivers. In doing so, I discovered to my amazement, that I have the power to make an invisible child–often poor, neglected or abused, afraid to open-up, justifiably suspicious of the system, and sometimes openly hostile–appear human. All of a sudden an angry school principle stops seeing a defiant, scary teenager in need of expulsion and instead sees a child afraid of the world and in need of help rebuilding trust.
Recently, while working with the staff in for-profit group homes, I have stumbled on the power of the language of motherhood. While I don’t actually consider the teenagers we work with children, I use that language, I describe them as my children and myself as their mother, at least figuratively. The effect is polarizing. For a few adults, the reminder that the person they are intent on punishing is a human being and someone’s child makes them angry. But more often than not, that language de-escalates tense situations, helps me refocus conversations around the children’s strengths rather than their perceived failings, and leads us out of confrontation into negotiation or even creative problem solving.
Increasingly I see part of my role as showing the teenagers that they don’t have to be invisible. That they have rights that deserve to be respected, needs that deserve to be met, feelings that deserve to be honored. And seeing me stick up for them helps them see themselves as more valuable and also more powerful. Sometimes I am rewarded by watching them learn to successfully advocate for themselves and make a difference in their lives, to see themselves as powerful.
Today, the anonymous victims of textile factory fires are still poor women, still invisible, but this time we ignore them because they live in foreign places that most of us have never seen: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, even while, like New Yorkers, we wear the clothes they make.
So who else am I still leaving invisible? Who are you making visible?
Like last year I’m keeping an extremely rough setup of notes from DrupalCon as a repository of things I’m picking up and tracking of sessions that looked like they would be interested but that I couldn’t attend because I was in another session. I’ll clean then up a bit and add to them over time.
Thank you to everyone who worked so hard to make the event a success.
I’ve assembled a playlist of the various sessions I though were good when I attended, or looked good but couldn’t attend.
Monday I attended the Community Summit, and while I had lots of great discussions, I didn’t take a lot of notes. The biggest two things I noted were that Western New York DUG is doing interesting stuff with online meetings that might be worth checking out and emulating for the SC DUG. And that Mid-Camp keeps a list of all the various channels that have videos of Drupal Camp sessions.
The current roadmap looks pretty cool, assuming everything comes together as well as we all hope it will:
This was a really good session on accessibility with both a real world set of examples and realistic discussions of what’s hard and what happens when things pass tests but don’t get tested by humans.
Major take aways:
Modern tools support JS and it no longer gets in the way of accessibility. WCAG 1.0 said this was a problem 20 years ago, but that’s not the current best practice.
There are constraints to the work because of accessibility, but it they don’t have.
“There are times that I go to use an interactive calendar on the web and all I hear is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and so on to 30 or 31…with no indication that these are dates…just a mass of numbers in the middle of the page.”
We used to test sites by disabling CSS/JS. Now it makes more sense to try to navigate the site with a keyboard and see what happens. Remember that just because something is possible it doesn’t mean it’s obvious or good. This doesn’t get you to a great site, but allows you to pick off errors before someone finds them for you later.
When you tab to things, the visual affordances some designers hate can be put back in as a compromise for people using accessibility tools.
I need to spend more time with the iPhone voice over tool so I can test things better.
This was a really interesting session on the Material Admin theme, and what’s been needed to make it work. It’s not perfect, and may or may not be ready for prime-time, but it looks like a great idea and show what we can do to make the admin much better.
This was a mini session that is worth watching if you’re unsure about the importance and value of having a code of conduct. The hope had been to have a discussion about the importance of Drupal’s CoC, but everyone who attended largely agreed about the broad strokes of the major issues that have been discussed lately in the community. We ended up talking more about how to broaden the discussion than about the CoC itself.
This session was an interesting look at the impact on ACLU’s D6 (yes that’s right) advocacy site running on Pantheon.
Moved to Pantheon in 2013. And that move dealt with limits of their old hosting solution. Unfortunately some of my old-timey knowledge of why that had that solution was so old they couldn’t tell me much about how they had managed to make that move.
“Crazy things happen all the time”
After the their ED made a Rachel Maddow appearance on 11/16/16 they saw an 85x traffic spike. Tag1 was called in to help sort out what happened.
They found it was database bound, which was very common on D6, but still something they see frequently.
Found queries with 3 table join with no indexes on the base table. Able to go from 200,000 rows being scanned, down to 76. They were responding in real-time in crisis response mode.
After the wave passed, they called Pantheon to help build out environments for testing using multi-dev.
During the spikes that followed for the first travel ban, which were even larger they worked to reroute errors to Fastly, which served a PayPal fundraising link: at least the donations kept coming but that wasn’t good enough.
They needed a botnet to replicate the traffic. Tag1 used: Locust to create load tests, SaltStack to organize the bots, and EC2 to be the bots. They were failing at ~600 requests per minute and they were able to get to ~5,000 requests per minute. At that point the payment gateways were also starting to buckle, which isn’t a thing most people see.
The final wave they discussed came after the Net Neutrality lose, which peaked around 1,900 form submissions/min.
ACLU needed more logging, but didn’t want them logging personal information. Turned out the payment gateway’s CDN was detecting a DDOS and blocking them. See curl_log and curl_loadbalance. They also intentionally shift load from MySQL to Redis and PHP(?!?) because they knew Pantheon could scale that are far and as fast as needed to handle the waves, but MySQL was a limiting factor.
Interesting to reflect that its about the process and the community, but not about the technology.
“Who here believes Facebook is unethical?” [hands rise] “Okay, who here has added a tracking pixel to a site at a client’s request?” [hands sheepishly rise] “Okay, now we return to the trolley problem…”
(Note: recording was intentionally stopped after the presentation but the discussion continued for quite a while).
Following Con last year Whitney Hess put forward some ideas, but it wasn’t clear where to go next.
It wasn’t clear that the DA should lead this, so it fell to the CWG cause they were last group standing.
Governance should evolve over time.
Need a values statement
Need to define the community and its membership.
Clearly document that structures and procedures.
CWG needs to improve CoC and enforcement.
Community needs to improve its global outreach.
DA should set higher standards.
Community matters should escalate to groups, not individuals.
We need community onboarding.
We should engage with other communities to discover best practices.
Dries stepped down as DA board chair.
DA hired Rachel Lawson.
DA created an updated CoC.
Dries is doing a round table on Thursday.
Trying to figure that out…
Need to determine if good feedback was gathered so far.
Need to figure out an ongoing and continuous feedback process.
The expected frustrations with Dries and the values statement were expressed. Communication between Dries and other folks continues to be a challenge. The bottleneck of single point of contact is making it hard to stop having a single point of contact.
The main discussion centered around what’s holding back D8 adoption and the ongoing sense that the main forces in the Drupal community no longer concern themselves with the nonprofit sector. This year’s BOF was small because NTC started today in New Orleans. From a rough head count if the people I new were in New Orleans had been at the BOF there would have been a similar number of people.
Automatic’s Support of Camps and staff to do so: It’s great, but it’s not in the budget (DA budget). He talked about creating it as a DA service that could be self-sustaining, but the WordPress model includes a donation of 8 FTEs.
What if your responsible for 1000 D7 sites? When we will know when there is a concrete answer to the question of the EOL for D7: This is an open issue without a good answer that needs a good answer. Move to D8? (but he doesn’t understand why that’s laughable without more detail).
What about the small shops and builders: He doesn’t feel like they were really left behind. Rachel also checked to what the DA could have done better with the new home page, but the language wasn’t a great choice.
"I don't think we're going to beat a Wix or a Squarespace. … Squarespace is really good at page-building, and we can look at them for inspiration. … We can do page-building that plays to our strength, like structured content."@Dries#AskDries#DrupalCon
What can a consumer do to preserve the open web: Not use Facebook. People read the web through Facebook like they do with Google. Don’t install an ad blocker.
Why don’t you hear more about Diversity issues from you? It’s important, and we have to do better. We aren’t were we should be, and I’m happy to show more leadership. I could do more by talking more about it in public and on twitter. Wants to think more about it, and doesn’t feel like an expert. He acknowledged his mistake in the DriesNote in Copanhagen. He also commented about shuttingdown after being called out because of how it was done. Wants understanding of the fact that he’ll make mistakes.
"Why don't you engage more in diversity and inclusion things online?" —@aburke626
"We need to do better, frankly. I'm happy to show more leadership there. … I can certainly do more. I'm going to take you up on that, you have my promise."
When are we moving to Github? A proof of concept is in place to move to GitLab! Our tools are better than GitLab in many ways, but GitLab wants to have our better strengths in their code base. So they are working on doing that for us and for all their users.
Is Drupal 7 Dead? No. Most sites are Drupal 7, and some new sites still launch there. But all the innovation is on 8.
Q: "Is Drupal 7 dead? Releases have slowed down…"@Dries: "Drupal 7 isn't dead…but I think a lot of the innovation has shifted to Drupal 8. People are still launching new websites on Drupal 7, and that's fine."#AskDries#Drupalcon
The new values and principles need work to more fully reflect the community. The process: a group together in December to review the community feedback. And it was clear he needed to do this. He’s been working on it since then, and has found it hard work. He wanted to make it Collabortive, but also wanted to put a stake in the ground. He knows that it needs work, but isn’t entirely sure of the next steps. Doesn’t want to the single owner. He would like to assemble a working group with a charter.
.@dries: "As a next step we're going to put together a working group…a diverse committee of people that can actually take it from here and carry it forward. My next step is to put together a charter for this group."#AskDries#DrupalCon
Will the new principles state that destructive beliefs, not just actions, will be banned. He defers to the working group.
Someone just asked if Drupal should police the "toxic beliefs" of community members. #askdries/@Dries has no, repeat no credibility on this topic as he was completely and totally complicit and responsible in the botched @Crell affair.
Rachel acknowledged the tweet, but didn’t know what to do with the fact that it actually called her out. “I wasn’t paying attention.” and then blamed questioners for not asking questions earlier. @drnikki was given a space, and directed people to DD&I meetings.
A really bad response from the audience calling on women lead. Tim Plunket responded appropriately.
"It's the responsibility… of the people in power and the people with privilege and the position and the voice to do this work for everyone else. I don't think it's fair to blame [under-represented people]" —@timplunkett#AskDries#DrupalCon
“Including people in community is more than saying, ‘you’re all included!’ A lot. It’s in our language and our symbols and how we present ourselves and how that communicates ‘what we do here’ to people who are watching.” @blackamazon at #DrupalCon
Yesterday my wife and I realized that there was a March for Our Lives being held here in Aiken. When we saw a friend of ours describe her 3-year-old’s first pre-school experience with an active shooter drill we realized that if the local teens could get up early on a Saturday to speak up for themselves, we could not justify staying home.
So I charged the camera battery, cleared the memory cards, and made sure I’d have pictures to share. Aiken is a small city in a state that’s hostile to gun control, so even a small crowd is an impressive turn out. The turn out was good, the people were energized, and the kids were clear in their ask: they want to be safe at school and they don’t think that should mean they have to be surrounded by armed guards (police or teachers).
The next installment in my ongoing set of posts to create a public record for things I couldn’t learn in one Google search is a process for using composer to track a Drupal 8 module in a private repository.
It’s pretty common for Drupal agencies to have a small collection of modules they have built in-house and use on nearly all client sites, or to build a module for one client that has many sites. We are all becoming adept at managing our projects with Composer, but the vast majority of resources are focused on managing publicly available code via packagist. There are times these kinds of internally shared modules cannot be made fully public (for example they may contain IP belonging to the client). We have one such client that needs a module deployed to dozens of sites, and so I sat down a few weeks ago to figure out a solution.
We use Bitbucket for our private repositories, I am sure there is a similar solution using GitHub, but I haven’t worked out its details.
Create private repo for module on Bitbucket.
Clone that repo locally, and structure it to match Drupal.org’s conventions (this probably isn’t required, but should allow your module to blend into the rest of the project more smoothly).
My wife and I are fans of M*A*S*H. When B.J. first arrives in Korea Hawkeye takes him to Rosie’s Bar and tells him: “I can’t think of a single reason why we’re here, except that we’re needed.” Oddly I’ve found this to be true of a great many service opportunities in my life; often the most useful ways to serve my community seems to require doing a things that should be utterly unneeded.
Often it has been around medical care. A few years ago we had a friend who spent more than a year in long-term respiratory rehab. Her daughter wasn’t able to visit much, and so we started to go most weekends just to see her. Not only did her emotional state improve but because we started to leave markers of loving family (a handmade afghan, photos, window clings, and other similar things) her medical care improved. That these things made a difference to how the staff treated her shouldn’t be true. When our own family members are in the hospital we try to ensure they get as much visitation as possible for the same reason.
Most recently it’s been while supporting children in foster care.
My wife and I serve as volunteer Guardian ad Litems in South Carolina (other states call the program CASA). It means we are court appointed advocates for children in foster care. We are the only people in their lives tasked with being openly biased in their favor. In practice it means we go to lots of meetings with professionals who should be better trained than us, better resourced than we are, and try to make sure they do their jobs the way the law requires. All children in foster care in South Carolina have a right to a volunteer advocate because the professionals who used to be paid to do this work didn’t do it as well as volunteers – nothing about that should be a true statement, but in 2010 the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled it was and from everything we’ve seen it is. So instead of a lawyer, they get us.
With just a few hours of training, that covered lots of information but barely scratched the surface, we were cut loose to help kids fight to make their lives whole again – ideally even better than before. We became part of a system run by underpaid, under-trained, and overloaded professionals. We go to all the meetings that happen in the lives of these children. We go to school and their home(s); we talk to everyone who passes through their lives during their time in the system; we visit the juvenile detention center to meet with our kids and prisons to meet with mom or dad; talk to doctors, lawyers (ours, their parent’s, and DSS’s but the kids rarely get their own in family court), case workers, detectives, probation officers, teachers and principals, parents, grand parents, foster parents, aunts and uncles, neighbors, and anyone else in their lives. Everyone else on that list worries about their own interests (like the parents do), other people in the family (like the case workers are federally obligately to do), are narrowly focused on one aspect of the child’s life (like their doctors are), or have worry about too many other people whose interests may conflict (like teachers must). My wife and I make sure we talk to more people than anyone else on the case, so that we can we represent the child’s interests and desires clearly and accurately.
We work with teenagers who have had all control of their lives taken away as they need to be learning to take more responsibility for their actions. The system is not designed well for the needs of teenagers, and so it falls to us to start helping these young people start to regain at least a little control of their destiny. The law requires us to meet with them once a month, but often it is more frequent (particularly with those prone to getting into trouble), and we become the only people they have who are both honest and unfailingly supportive. We are also too often the only people listening to their opinions about what’s happened and what they want to have happen next.
Our only real power, beyond being allowed into meetings, is that we are required to make recommendations to the court about what should happen. The court can ignore us, although they do so far less than people tell us to expect and the judges always listen with interest to to what we say. The vast majority of our impact happens outside of the court room, when professionals work harder just because they know we are watching.
Being a GAL is equal parts wonderful and infuriating, but at all times useful. We have discovered that just having a totally biased volunteer in the child’s life often makes the professionals more responsive to the child’s needs. Our schools are deeply under-resourced, and frequently seek to avoid providing legally mandated but expensive services so my wife is becoming an expert in education law to allow her to ensure the children’s rights are respected. But she has found that once she meets with the school administrators once or twice, and see that someone believes the kid is worth fighting for, they join us and help ensure the child is getting the support they need. Group homes, even terrible ones that openly allow their staff to beat children in ways that are banned for our prison guards (there is a true story behind that), are more careful when they know a volunteer is watching over a specific child and holding them legally accountable.
Sometimes just having a person around who cares, and thinks someone else is worth caring about, helps people who should do their jobs regardless of what’s happening, do their jobs better.