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IndyBar: Words from the Wise: Derelle Watson-Duvall

March 21, 2018

By Lindsay R. Faulkenberg, Kids’ Voice of Indiana

Recently, Magistrate Kim Mattingly nudged us to gather wisdom from our more seasoned attorneys while we have the chance. This reminded me that I have one of those seasoned attorneys in my own office: Kids’ Voice’s own Derelle Watson-Duvall. She will have been practicing 40 years on June 1, 2018. Most other attorneys know Derelle for her ability to recall a statute or a case at the drop of a hat, and many of us have called her for advice at one point or another. For many years, she’s been an amazing mentor to me, other Kids’ Voice staff attorneys and attorneys around Indiana. With Magistrate Mattingly’s prompt in mind, I sat down with Derelle to get the details about her work at Marion County Child Welfare (what is now Department of Child Services), her craziest cases and her best advice for the younger generations of lawyers.

What did you do before practicing law?

I was a case worker for Marion County Child Welfare and went to law school at night. In April 1978, I passed the bar and became a lawyer for Marion County Child Welfare. At the time, I was one of a handful of attorneys and was the only woman. I was full time, but many of the other attorneys were part time. When I worked as a case worker, I would study law in the broom closet on my lunch break, and then that broom closet became my office when I started there as a lawyer.

What jobs have you had as a lawyer?

From 1978 to 1994, I worked at Marion County Child Welfare. In 1982, through an ABA Grant to the Indianapolis Bar Association, Rebecca Pryor and I worked with others on legislation that expanded GALs/CASAs around the state, created the State Office of GAL/CASA, expanded the law on cooperative adoption and post adoption sibling contact, amended the child hearsay law so children didn’t have to testify in front of their parents in CHINS cases, and worked on other laws regarding TPR, adoption and GALs in dissolution cases. We also worked on legislation that put the best interest standard in dispositional hearings. Starting in 1982, I trained others about serving as a GAL/CASA and reporting child abuse for day care providers through the agency that is now known as Kids’ Voice. In 1988, Francie Hill and I wrote the first CHINS Deskbook, published by Indiana Advocates for Children (which became Kids’ Voice of Indiana) and provided statewide training for DCS lawyers, judges and public defenders. On April 1, 1994, I started to work at Kids’ Voice full time, as the first lawyer for the agency. I have also done private practice cases at different times throughout the years.

In your adult life, were you always a lawyer?

Yes, with some stints as a waitress, hostess and case worker.

How has the general field of family/children’s law changed during your practice?

The juvenile code went to into effect on October 1, 1979, and has been amended extensively over the years. The law is a lot more specific and detailed now than it was back then. When I worked at Marion County Child Welfare, the types of CHINS cases included filthy houses or physical abuse that may not even be filed on now, because we didn’t have issues like opioid abuse. Back then, the children in CHINS cases were not reunified with their families, but raised in foster care. Many of those kids stayed with the same foster family their whole childhood and turned out well. The military recruiter was in the same office as child welfare back then and many kids ended up joining the military. Everything now is a lot more complex. Children did not come in and out of CHINS system like they do now. We spent a lot of time getting kids adopted, and we chose what cases to file TPR on, as it was not a requirement like now. If we filed a TPR case, we had extensive evidence or we didn’t file.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever had happen in a courtroom?

I was the attorney representing the GAL in a contested adoption. After I finished cross examining paternal grandmother, she collapsed, fell to the floor, and CPR was attempted, but she passed away. At that moment, everyone forgot about the fighting and came together to try to help her.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever had happen in a case?

Kids’ Voice was appointed as the GAL for a child three different times over five years in a contested guardianship and then a contested adoption case. The Court of Appeals even issued a pretty important decision about this case while it was still pending. The case settled in mediation because of Phyllis Armstrong at Child Advocates.

What do you wish you could see happen in family/children’s law?

I would like to see more use of mediation and collaborative law, more respect shown between opposing counsel and the parties, and less things be over-litigated.

What have you learned working with a younger generation of attorneys?

I am very impressed with the younger generation of attorneys. Their knowledge and skill level are more than I had when I passed the bar. The clinics and practical experience have helped with that. I see many outstandingly competent lawyers that we work with and who are well balanced emotionally.

What do you think the younger generation can learn from the seasoned attorneys?

People need to do more research. Read the statutes. Read the case law. Open the statute books. You cannot expect short simple answers to the complicated questions. Statutes can be interpreted different ways and case law is so fact dependent. I think you have to respect the law and not always try to find a way to get around it.

What do you think is the biggest thing that’s changed between how lawyers practiced when you were admitted versus now?

Lawyers are better prepared now, and there is a lot more use of technology so there is better access to case law and statutes.

What advice would she give young/new attorneys about working in such an emotionally charged area of the law?

Always try to make time for yourself and your family and friends. Practice frugality in your own finances so you don’t feel compelled to overload yourself with work to be able to support yourself and your family. You will just exhaust yourself. Maybe give up Starbucks or don’t drive a fancy car. Set limits with your clients to not be calling you at night…you need your rest!

What advice would you give all or young lawyers on civility?

Go out of your way to be polite even when others are not. Be patient with others when they become angry and accusatory.

What do you like to do when you’re not busy saving children and educating all of Indiana about children’s issues?

I enjoy nature, bird watching, identifying flowers and trees in our state parks. Or watching movies based on historical events.

Any final words of wisdom?

It is an honor to practice law; you don’t feel that every day when people are yelling at you, but it really is, and you shouldn’t abuse it. Understand the ability to practice law is a privilege and an honor, but it also carries with it duties and responsibilities.

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