Renowned children's advocate to speak at Gala Dinner on ways attorneys can change system

Issue January 2004 By Krista Zanin

From representing a child on a pro bono basis in the juvenile justice system to lobbying for increased spending on early childhood education, lawyers can set the tone for addressing priorities vital to the welfare of children.

This is the message renowned children's rights advocate Marian Wright Edelman will bring later this month when she addresses hundreds of attorneys, judges and their guests gathered for the 2004 Gala Dinner.

"The individual representation of poor children who are not getting what they need and who are going through the child welfare and juvenile justice system is an enormous problem," Edelman said. "But policy advocacy as well is very important.

"While we need to balance the scales of justice we also need to play a bigger role in helping implement more just policies and seeing systems exist that are fairly implemented."

Founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, Edelman is the keynote speaker for the Gala Dinner, which will be held Friday, Jan. 23 at the Sheraton Boston Hotel as part of Annual Conference 2004.

Edelman has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans her entire professional life. Under her leadership, CDF has become the nation's strongest voice for children and families. The organization in 2003 celebrated its 30th anniversary.

Lawyers can play a vital role in creating a better system for children, from representing a child on an individual level through a pro bono program to lobbying for increased education spending to writing amicus curiae briefs for cases critical to child welfare.

"The real issue is how do we find our own voice and role in making America a leader in the care and protection of children," Edelman said.

"While we've got to make sure we save as many individual children as we can, we also have to change the systems that victimize the children," Edelman said.

Edelman, a graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, began her career in the mid 1960s when, as the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, she directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office Jackson, Miss. In 1968, Edelman moved to Washington, D.C., as counsel for the Poor People's Campaign that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began organizing before his death. She founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm and the parent body of the Children's Defense Fund. For two years, Edelman served as the director of the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University.

Lawyers, said Edelman, have greater access to the channels of change, and therefore should use their influence to create a better society for children.

"It's so important for lawyers to use their access to make sure the ideals of society are being honored and obviously children and poor children and disabled children are among the most powerless and lawyers have a role to play in redressing that," Edelman said.

For instance, Edelman said a gun kills a child every three hours in the United States and every three weeks in Massachusetts and millions of children live in poverty. The funding of education must also be a priority.

"Massachusetts is spending 4.4 times more per prisoner than per public school pupil," Edelman said. "Those are profoundly dumb investment priorities and I think they are morally wrong. Something is wrong with a value system ... that guarantees every child a jail or detention cell (rather than) a (quality) education)."

"It should be the priority of lawyers, who have a disproportionate amount of power and access to power, to speak up and protect children," Edelman said.

In addition to helping children on an individual basis, attorneys could become involved on a broader scale, Edelman said, pointing to the 12 million children who are poor in this country, a majority of whom have working parents.

"Charity is not a substitute for justice," Edelman said. "Charity is not a substitute for all the homeless children who need housing, lambs wasting away in homeless shelters ... Children in the juvenile justice system do need individual representation, but we also need a better funded, more efficient juvenile justice system."

"We've got to change our policies, priorities and systems if children are to be protected," Edelman said.

Gala Dinner tickets must be purchased separately. Advanced reservations are recommended. Tickets are $125 per person. Individuals and firms may reserve tables of 10 at the special rate of $1,000 per table.