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Saving a generation of foster kids

By Jeff Bleich
President, State Bar of California

Jeff Bleich
Bleich

I’ve promised to use this column to pass along practical ideas for lawyers from bars and other organizations. Last month’s suggestions concerned how lawyers and law firms can help save our planet one office at a time by reducing energy consumption and waste. This month, I’d like to suggest some ways to save a generation, one child at a time.

Because most lawyers already have busy lives serving others, we may get tired of having our bar association ask us to help yet another group (or telling us it’s our duty).

The reaction may be “let some other group do some pro bono work for a change.” While I understand this impulse, this plea is different.

There is one group of young people in our courts that especially need our help as lawyers. They have done nothing wrong; in fact, they are victims of their own families and the system. But without our help, the odds are that they will end up homeless, institutionalized or dead at a young age.

We all expect that when a child is neglected or abused, the state will step in to rescue them. But the reality is very different. There are currently more than 80,000 youth going through California’s foster care system.

They are all there for the same reason —  because people who were supposed to protect them did just the opposite. They may have been beaten, sexually or emotionally abused, physically abandoned or starved. Or they may just be a pawn in a family dispute.

What they need most of all is to get a consistent, caring adult in their life and a chance at having a stable environment.California has one of the highest rates of foster care in the country and some of the worst outcomes.

Although approximately 10 percent of the nation’s children live in California, we have roughly 20 percent of the nation’s foster children. On average, these children bounce through our system for three years in approximately five different temporary placements, before they get a permanent foster home.

At 18, they are “emancipated” — often before they have had any chance to catch up on those lost years or to build any real life. Fewer than 2 percent ever get a college degree, more than half will be homeless, institutionalized or dead within five years of leaving the system.

While everyone wishes that we could just write a check, or pass a law or create an institution that would help these children, there is only one thing that ever works: a person like you. They are missing what we all took for granted — a caring adult who looked out for us, who advocated for us, and who made our success their mission.

As lawyers, we can’t solve all the personal, family and societal problems that face a foster youth, but we can use our legal expertise and talent to help keep them from becoming a statistic. Children in foster care face special challenges.

They may need a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) to help in explaining their own challenges during dependency or custody proceedings. They may be eligible for SSI benefits or medical care to help them deal with the trauma they’ve experienced. They may be entitled to special education because of learning disabilities or emotional or behavioral problems. Or they may face immigration issues and have no family to help them navigate the system.

As they approach 18, they may need help obtaining general assistance, Section 8 housing, an individual education plan, higher education or access to numerous other programs.

But as the Pew Commission on Foster Care found, our system has failed to give these youth a meaningful voice in our courts in large part because they don’t have skilled lawyers who stay with them through all of their legal claims.

Every time our system fails to address one of the problems a youth faces, it compounds the harm done to them. You could change this system, and in doing that, save a child’s life, by agreeing to be their advocate.

There is already a program in every county in this state that needs your help.

For example, in San Diego County, the Volunteer Lawyer Program (SDVLP) offers a Foster Youth Advocacy Project that helps approximately 170 foster children a year in special education and immigration cases.

In Marin County, the Marin Advocates for Children (MAC) helps foster children with special advocates while they are in the system and helps find stable homes as they are aging out to allow them a safe transition as an adult.

The California Young Lawyers Association will be working with both of these groups to help encourage volunteers to meet the need in those counties.

If you want to join CYLA’s effort or learn about programs in your county, contact either the National Center for Youth Law at youthlaw.org or Legal Services for Children at lsc-sf.org. There is a child that needs you to be their lawyer today.

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