Our most precious resource

Issue June 2009 By Ed W. McIntyre

In 1993, the late chief justice of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Leon Higginbotham Jr., summoned the nation’s lawyers “to stand up for children … to donate time to children … and if you already give time, give more.” The children to which the late justice was referring were mostly at-risk youth — those youngsters whose futures appeared bleak, those living malnourished lives and those at high risk of involvement in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

As we are aware and the American Bar Association’s Youth at Risk Commission confirms, there are numerous factors that aggravate these risks — chaotic home lives, domestic violence, abuse, chronic neglect, unmet health needs, learning disabilities, illiteracy and poor educational and employment options, to name a few.

Higginbotham fervently believed that working together, the legal community can combat such factors and ultimately have a profound difference in the life of a child.

Last month, the Massachusetts Bar Association proudly honored attorney Barbara Kaban of the Children’s Law Center in Lynn with a Legal Services Award. Kaban’s advocacy on behalf of countless at-risk children has successfully thwarted many of the toxic factors mentioned. One of her former clients, now an adult, came to speak about the life-altering impact she had on him, making clear that her work essentially changed the life path that this orphaned child would have otherwise taken.

“Kids are the most undervalued and underserved members of society, yet they are our most important resource,” said Kaban, a luminary among us.

Others have also shined brightly on children’s behalf. The late Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Paul J. Liacos had initiated the Judicial Youth Corps Program (JYC) in the 1990s. The JYC offers urban high school students the opportunity to learn about the law and the administration of justice. It provides an invaluable opportunity for students to participate in a hands-on summer internship surrounded by exemplary adult role models. The worth of the program was recognized by the ABA shortly after the program began as “an outstanding community partnership program which promotes greater understanding of the justice system.”

Now in its 19th season, the JYC will run in Boston and Worcester this summer. Thanks to a Fellow’s Grant from the Massachusetts Bar Foundation sought by the MBA, the Worcester program was revitalized in 2007 following a long hiatus due to lack of funding. According to MBF Executive Director Elizabeth M. Lynch, the program “provides the rare opportunity to expose children to the law and to public interest work, and at the same time, it helps them recognize their own professional potential.”

It is the work of Kaban, Liacos’ vision with the JYC and the dedication of many others on the local and national stage that have paved the road for us to continue, in good faith, to make a substantial difference in the lives of our urban youth.

The ABA commission proposes other initiatives and activities for lawyers to consider, including:

Peer mediation: Studies reveal that following negotiation and mediation training, conflicts requiring the intervention of an administrator or teacher decreased 80 percent and the number of disputes requiring the attention of the principal dropped to zero.

Pro bono representation in expulsion/suspension hearings: Representation at administrative hearings for at-risk students threatened with expulsion or suspension offers an immensely important resource that can change a child’s life. Dropouts are three and one-half times as likely as graduates to be arrested, six times as likely to be unwed parents, seven and one-half times as likely as graduates to be dependent on welfare, and two times as likely to be unemployed and to live in poverty.

In March, the MBA House of Delegates endorsed in principle An Act to Help Students Stay in School, which intends to protect students from being excluded for misconduct that does not seriously threaten student and staff safety. The proposed act goes against the grain of existing laws that have fostered an increased tendency of long-term suspension and expulsion.

Adopt a truant: School principals pair volunteers with a student who has been reported for excessive absences. Many broad social problems hamper efforts to give all children appropriate and adequate educations. Low-income students are further hindered by health problems, inadequate nutrition and clothing, neighborhood and domestic violence and teenage pregnancy.

Read to a child: Illiteracy is a substantial contributing factor to homelessness, poverty, unemployment, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, delinquency and welfare dependency. A child who can read is enlightened, encouraged to think and develop new ideas, motivated to promote his or her education, and eager to explore life’s opportunities. Empowering a child to read can make a world of difference, whether it involves a first grader or a high school student.

Volunteer at a homeless shelter: Volunteer to be the “resident child advocate” in a homeless shelter. Children who are homeless face a multitude of problems associated with the lack of affordable, decent housing. They lack proper shelter, food and clothing, and are deprived of the education which they are entitled to under state and federal law. Providing legal services at such shelters may lead to the stable atmosphere that is so necessary for healthy and happy children.
Employ or help place an at-risk youth: One simple way to change a child’s life is to hire him or her at your firm or law office. Taking a chance and giving at-risk teenagers a job or responsibility in a mature, adult environment can often give them the confidence and self-respect needed to stay out of trouble. Work develops self-esteem and engenders dignity. Working in a law firm environment forges connections to the larger community while being exposed to positive role models.

Represent battered women and children: Assisting women and children in obtaining legal remedy emancipates them from dependency on abusive and exploitative spouses. They and their children are thus empowered to leave destructive relationships and establish independence.

Mentor a child in need: When Urie Bronfenbrenner, a world renowned expert on human development, was asked in a Congressional hearing what he thought was key in early development, he said: “Some adult has got to be crazy about the kid, and truly be there for that kid, and let that kid know his life is important and has meaning.” Lawyers can provide a young person with “credibility” in the “real world” by making telephone calls on his or her behalf when problems crop up in probation, housing, school or consumer-related issues.

Coach a Mock Trial team: The MBA’s Mock Trial program, with hundreds of MBA members serving as either coaches or judges, provides a worthwhile opportunity to contribute to a child’s development. With scores of schools, courts and hundreds of student participants, the program would benefit immensely with further commitment from the legal profession.

Higginbotham believed that if each one of us responds to the call, then “this great nation should be able to reduce the number of children who fall into the rivers of despair, poverty, failure, cycles-of-violence and to rescue many of those who have fallen in.”

A child is a person who is going to carry on what you have started. He is going to sit where you are sitting, and when you are gone, attend to those things which you think are important. You may adopt all the policies you please, but how they are carried out depends on him. He will assume control of your cities, states and nations. He is going to move in and take over your churches, schools, universities and corporations. All your books are going to be judged, praised, or condemned by him. The fate of humanity is in his hands.

—Abraham Lincoln (attributed)