- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 24, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Last month, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., addressing a national pediatric conference, described a recent Justice Department-commissioned report, National Survey of Children Exposed to Violence.

It found, shockingly, that more than 60 percent of children have been exposed to violence during the past year, either directly or indirectly. Much of that brutality occurred in their homes. In his speech, the attorney general challenged us to do more to help these vulnerable children.

Every November, we mark National Adoption Month, a time to celebrate families brought together through adoption. Adoptive parents and others pause to reflect on and celebrate the great privilege and joy resulting from a child’s adoption. But we all must also recognize there are large numbers of children still awaiting adoption who have experienced the cruelty of abuse - and the equally devastating developmental and emotional impact of chronic neglect. Half a million children are in foster care because of what they have suffered in their homes.

With the help of child welfare agencies, dependency courts, and judges and attorneys working within that system, most of these children will be safely returned to strengthened and more protective families, or permanently placed with loving relatives.

As many as 130,000 of them, however, remain in foster care and need adoptive or other permanent families. Their average age is close to 9, but greater numbers of older youth each year are lingering within the system.

What can we lawyers do to help them? Mr. Holder suggested those of us who come in contact with troubled children and families, regardless of the reason, become better trained and more informed so we can identify children who need our help. For those in foster care, I believe we can do even more.

These youth are truly “children of loss” - having lost birth families, neighborhoods, schools, friends and belongings. They come to believe they can’t count on anyone. We must work to restore their confidence and trust in life.

Lawyers in the child welfare field - and we encourage more - can help these children immensely. This year, for instance, the ABA Center on Children and the Law marks its 30th anniversary of work to improve child protective legal policy and practice.

Even for those who don’t do child-focused legal work, there are opportunities to help youth in foster care. Here are some examples:

c Consider what the Florida Bar Foundation has done. It created a model “Lawyers Challenge for Children,” asking attorneys to add a $45 charitable contribution to their bar dues payment for support of enhanced legal help to these boys and girls.

c Model a project on the work of the Houston Young Lawyers Association Child Custody and Adoption Pro Bono Project. It also sponsors an annual Adoption Day in Court that celebrates the creation of new “forever families” for foster youth.

c Follow the example of Minneapolis lawyer Patricia Yoedicke, who provided nearly 800 pro bono hours representing state wards whose parents had already had rights terminated, thus making the children no longer entitled to an attorney. Her legal help - acknowledged by the ABA through its Ann Liechty Child Custody Award - filled that void, often making her the most consistent person in these children’s lives.

c Do something like what our lawyers are accomplishing in Washington, where the challenges are particularly acute, given the more than 6,000 children in the abuse and neglect system.

Lawyers volunteer or donate to support adoption and to help children, adoptive parents and birth parents through the Lawyers for Children program, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Initiative, the D.C. Bar Foundation and other groups. Pro bono lawyers are also assisting parents who respond to the weekly “Wednesday’s Child” TV segment that highlights foster children available for adoption.

The ABA and its state and local bar association counterparts also have an opportunity this year to support extension of the Federal Adoption Tax Credit, considered the most generous individual credit in today’s tax code, and target it to encourage more foster youth adoptions. The credit should especially support adoption of those older special needs youth who must not be simply allowed to “age out” of foster care without permanent connections to caring adults.

Join an effort like one of these. Come up with one of your own. This is an area where lawyers can make a lasting difference in the lives of children and families. It is some of the best work we can do for our children - our future - and for our communities. We must embrace Mr. Holder’s suggestion: Let’s not watch from the sidelines and hope someone else does the job.

Carolyn B. Lamm is president of the American Bar Association.


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