The Blog Formerly Known As Practical Paralegalism
I was thrilled to see that the Children’s Law Center in Washington, DC “received the 2009 Mayor’s Community Service Award yesterday for its successful use of pro bono attorneys to help the District’s at-risk children. The award was presented as part of National Volunteer Week.”
The Children’s Law Center helps more than 1,000 children each year. It is the largest legal services provider in the District and the only organization that provides free, comprehensive legal representation specifically on behalf of children. The Children’s Law Center envisions a future for the District of Columbia in which every child has a safe home, a meaningful education and a healthy mind and body. We work to achieve this vision by providing legal services to at-risk children and their families and using the knowledge we gain from representing our individual clients to advocate for changes in the law and its implementation. For more information, visit www.childrenslawcenter.org. (PRNewsWire.com)
I’ve always loved volunteering with children, especially those that need an adult advocate in the legal system. For those of us who grew up in stable homes, or have our own close-knit and secure family units, it’s hard to place ourselves in the shoes of children who grow up with little to no family stability, no access to services due to lack of income or informed caregivers, or worse, suddenly find themselves in the foster care system.
When my biological daughter was enrolled in a local performing arts high school and spending long days in rehearsals, I wanted to do something with children that would utilize my paralegal training. I volunteered as a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) for our county. My role was to be the objective, fact-finding advocate for the children. I made recommendations regarding their future at scheduled court hearings, including filing regular written reports. This is a serious responsibility, as the court often gives a great deal of weight to the report and testimony of the objective GAL.
Much to my surprise, I learned that many abused children, no matter what a parent had done to them, wanted to be reunited with that parent. I was lucky enough to work with one mother and daughter, who weren’t separated because of abuse, but due to the mother’s lack of parenting skills. She did everything the court asked to learn those skills, and was reunited with her little girl, whom I really loved, despite the instructions not to get attached.
Then when my only child flew out of the nest and left for college, I decided to volunteer with children again, but this time I wanted to be able to build a mentoring relationship directly with a child. I narrowed my options down to the local children’s home or Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS), but really liked the idea of spending time every week with a little girl. I remembered the children I worked with as a GAL, and how much they loved simply talking with someone who took an interest in them. BBBS assigned me to the most amazing little girl, but a year after we were matched, unforeseen family issues arose that resulted in the Department of Social Services (DSS) removing her from her caregiver.
Luckily, DSS came to me first. If they’d tried to take her to a licensed foster home, I would have sat on the steps of DSS until they gave her to me. But DSS and the court agreed that I was the best placement for a child who had a life-threatening illness, sickle cell disease, and a deep bond with me. In a wonderful but unusual twist of fate, we ended up adopting each other. I’m quick to remind people that BBBS is an incredible mentoring organization, but definitely not an adoption service. I’m also a huge proponent of at least considering adoption as an option in your family-building plans. I like to say that God is like UPS – sometimes he delivers your children to the wrong address.
I know that foreign adoption by celebrities makes the headlines frequently, but I wish the headlines would focus on the many children here in the United States who can never go back to their birth families, and need steady “forever families” right now. During the course of adopting my youngest daughter, I spent two and a half years experiencing the juvenile court system firsthand. Ironically, my daughter and I had our own wonderful GAL. I used to sit in the lobby at Child Protective Services and watch so many beautiful children experiencing the trauma of the system. No matter how wonderful the social, foster and court workers are, it’s still a brutal experience for a child.
So, yes, it really makes me feel good to know that members of my chosen profession are donating hours of their time to help at-risk children, especially those who find themselves suddenly in the foster care system. I know that adopting an older child, or a child from a different economic or racial background is not for everyone. I know that not everyone can envision themselves mentoring or finding an activity to do with a child once or twice a week – especially when it might take months for that child to “warm up” to them. But I think that many of us have the legal training to work with volunteer organizations that help these children through the court system, even if it’s only a couple of hours per month, or helping with an annual fund-raising event. These children need us, with our unique training and legal background.
If you’re interested in working as a court advocate for children, go to the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) website under “Volunteer Inquiry” and enter your zip code to find the court volunteer programs closest to you.
The picture is of my daughters. I’d love it if you share pictures of your kids in comments — kinda like virtual “wallet-whipping-out”.