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Lawyer makes family support her top priority

By Kristina Horton Flaherty
Staff Writer

San Francisco attorney Shannan Wilber has toured juvenile detention facilities nationwide and talked to children in custody. She has seen some youngsters, clad only in underwear, locked up in small, packed cells for 24 hours a day. She has seen broken windows, faulty plumbing and extreme temperatures.

San Francisco attorney Shannan Wilber

"Sometimes," she recalls, "it was really shocking."

It also fueled Wilber's push for change. For more than a decade, in various jobs, Wilber has helped hundreds of foster children, abused youngsters and teenagers in custody, either representing them directly or fighting for broad-based systemic reform.

For her efforts, the children's advocate has been selected, along with Kentucky attorney Kim Brooks, to receive the American Bar Association Livingston Hall Juvenile Justice award this month at the ABA's annual meeting in San Francisco.

As it turns out, Wilber and Brooks even worked together once in the mid-1990s on a federal class action lawsuit (Doe v. Younger) that successfully challenged the conditions and practice of detaining children at an adult jail in Kentucky. The suit, which sparked statewide reform, was just one of Wilber's efforts to improve the lot of children who wind up in state custody.

"These are really forgotten kids," Wilber says. "I'm proud and honored to have the opportunity to have worked on behalf of those kids, to give them a voice."

Wilber's interest in helping families and children goes back decades. As a social worker in the late 1970s, she worked in domestic violence programs and at a group home for young children. But after a few years, she says, she felt as though she wasn't making a difference. So, "sort of on a whim," she wound up in law school and found her niche.

Fresh out of Santa Clara University School of Law in the mid-1980s, she spent two years as a clerk for California Supreme Court Justice Allen E. Broussard and little more than a year at Morrison and Foerster. But then she was offered the chance to help launch a legal and social services program for children — Legal Advocates for Children & Youth (LACY) — in Santa Clara County.

"It was more than a 50 percent pay cut," Wilber recalls. "But that was okay. It was a real opportunity to start something from the ground up."

It also marked a turning point for Wilber. She was the first directing attorney for LACY, a program in which lawyers and social workers work together to keep young clients in safe, stable families, in school and out of foster care and the juvenile justice system. Two years later, in 1992, she took a job at the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center where, through policy work and litigation, she worked to reform juvenile justice systems around the nation. She sought, for example, to expand the alternatives to detention and to keep children out of adult jails.

Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center, recalls how much Wilber liked talking to the children at such facilities. "Shannan is someone who listens well to children," he said. "Then she can channel those children's needs into action."

Soler, who nominated Wilber for the ABA award, also sees her as someone willing to go the extra mile. "I think she's one of the finest people I've ever met," he said. "She has great empathy for other people . . . and she has a wonderful perspective on where everything fits in the grand scheme of things."

In 2001, after nearly a decade at the Youth Law Center, Wilber, now 47, became executive director of Legal Services for Children in San Francisco. She was at a time in her career, she says, when she felt she could make a greater difference in such a role.

What she'd like to see in the future is more support for families. The government, she says, is a "really terrible" parent. "Honestly, if we could support families so that kids could stay at home and be with their families. I think we'd all be better off."

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