Fighting for their rights
Legal group donates time to ensure children's cases aren't lost in the
Article Source: Journal Inquirer – Thursday 1st, 2005
Paralegal Jayne Carlson has lots of children to care for. But they're
not hers. They're children who have been abused or neglected, and are
having the courts decide their future.
Carlson is part of Lawyers for Children America, a nonprofit organization
that recruits lawyers and paralegals willing to do pro bono -- free --
legal work advocating for children.
"I am so impassioned by this," Carlson says.
"We're not doing this for reward, we're not doing this for credo,"
she continues."We're doing this because it's the right thing to do."
Carlson, of South Windsor, is the executive vice president of the Central
Connecticut Paralegal Association, a paralegal for Chubb & Son, and
a volunteer for Lawyers for Children America.
The nonprofit organization is dedicated to helping children who are victims
of abuse or neglect. The work is challenging, emotionally intense, and
The first time Carlson sat in the courtroom for a Lawyers for Children
case, she says, "I thought to myself, I'm really a paralegal.' I
was so proud of who I was, and what I'm doing."
Lawyers for Children was started in 1995 by Zoe Baird, former candidate
for attorney general, under President Clinton's administration.
Since then, the organization has helped over 1,600 children. All its cases
are spread among 500 volunteer lawyers who represent over 200 firms, and
a great number of private practices.
Lawyers for Children has five offices: in Hartford, Fairfield, and New
Haven; two in Florida; and one in Washington, D.C. And it's growing.
Kimberly King, executive director of the organization, explains that Lawyers
for Children is different because of its volunteer setup.
"There are a lot of legal advocacy groups," she says, "but
none of them utilize volunteer attorneys to provide pro bono work."
The unpaid status of Lawyers for Children volunteers isn't the only thing
the organization does differently. It also provides training and support
to address the challenges of being a child lawyer.
The Yale Child Study Center leads one portion of the Lawyers for Children
training, giving an overview of child development and the impact of traumatic
experiences. It coaches volunteers on how to relate to the children and
make the court process less frightening and mysterious.
Many of the children face psychological difficulties as well, says Miriam
Berkman, Lawyers for Children's liaison at Yale. And frequent uprooting
and distrust of adults has long-term consequences for everything from
social skills to learning capacity, she says.
Crucial, then, is Yale's training on how to get the best professional
evaluations for the children. The evaluations weigh on decisions regarding
living placements, schooling, and medical treatment, to name a few.
"Child attorneys are not themselves going to be the evaluators, that's
not their job," explains Berkman. "Their job is to understand
enough about development and mental health that they seek a good evaluation,
so that they can advocate for their client and make sure they get what
More time for each child
Volunteers take on only as many Lawyers for Children cases as they can
handle with the rest of their workload -- usually just one at a time --
which allows them to really immerse themselves in the cases. They visit
foster homes, have regular contact with the children, and interview social
workers and teachers.
This is a stark contrast to contract child lawyers, who often end up with
a landslide of cases and just minutes to meet each child.
Mary Bartholic and Thomas "Tad" Witherington are partners at
the Hartford firm Cohn Birnbaum & Shea P.C., and work together on
Lawyers for Children cases. Their first client was a child whose situation
was complicated by Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. After meeting
with the school's special education department, they found a foster home
to accommodate the child's disorder, and argued successfully for him and
his brother to be placed there together.
Richard Harris, a partner in the Hartford law firm Day, Berry, & Howard
LLP, describes a case where his client's mother had a drug addiction problem.
A cursory decision would have been to remove the child from the parent.
Harris was able to take the time to observe the two together, though,
and it became clear that they had an important bond. The child's best
interest was in getting help to her mother, and finding a way to reunite
"It took a lot of work for somebody to say, Maybe we shouldn't terminate
parental rights,'" Harris says. Today, the child is 15 years old
and has been living under supervised conditions with her mother for the
past four years, "and they're doing very well," Harris reports.
A network of support
Lawyers for Children is run by 10 staff members who supervise the entire
volunteer caseload and are a direct source of advice. According to King,
they are educators, doctors, and nurses who are also lawyers who provide
technical support to their peers.
Beyond the staff, Lawyers for Children has a network of local professionals
-- including the Yale Child Study Center -- that can be contacted for
input on cases. As Berkman puts it, "The more you know about children
and the more you have access to other professionals the better of an advocate
you can be."
This strong support system means that volunteer lawyers and paralegals
don't need to have experience in child welfare law. In fact, most of them
Many are corporate lawyers by practice, spending most of their days on
mergers, acquisitions, stocks, and bonds, explains Claudia Maxwell, Lawyers
for Children program director.
For volunteers with such backgrounds, Lawyers for Children adds a new
and rewarding aspect to their work lives, Maxwell says. They are in direct
contact with the children and can see the difference that they are making.
A number of other volunteers are new lawyers. For them, Lawyers for Children
represents the opportunity to try cases in front of a court -- a rare
experience for someone in his or her first few years at a law firm --
with Lawyers for Children standing by as a mentor.
Passion for their work
For the varying experiences that Lawyers for Children volunteers bring
to the courtroom, one thing is strikingly common: They really believe
in the work that they are doing. "The Lawyers for Children America
program is, in my view, one of the unrecognized jewels in the pro bono
arena," Harris says, "because it focuses on our future, our
"It's really a passion," Maxwell concludes.
Lawyers for Children America is always looking for lawyers and paralegals.
A free training session will take place from 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday,
Aug. 15, at LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae in Hartford. Those interested
may contact Claudia Maxwell at (860) 273-0654, or e-mail email@example.com
For more information about the organization, visit: