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For Los Angeles child advocate Amy Pellman, kids come first

By Kristina Horton Flaherty
Staff Writer

When Los Angeles attorney Amy M. Pellman discovered there wasn't any manual to help guide her in a new job representing children and parents in dependency court a decade ago, she came up with a solution: She simply wrote one herself.

Los Angeles attorney Amy M. Pellman

"I guess I had some chutzpah," she says now. "It was a way for me to learn it."

Learn it she did.

A children's advocate on various fronts, she has since represented hundreds of children and parents, juggling as many as 300 cases at a time in Los Angeles' Children's Court. In recent years, she and co-workers successfully sued to force social workers to pay monthly visits to children in foster care with few exceptions. And she spearheaded a national adoption day that has resulted in the adoption of more than 3,000 foster children nationwide.

For her work on behalf of children, Pellman, 42, has been selected, along with New York City lawyer Katherine Locker, to receive the American Bar Association's 2003 Child Advocacy Award this month at the ABA's annual meeting. The award is presented annually by the ABA Young Lawyers Division's Children and the Law Committee and the Center on Children and the Law.

"What stands out about Amy Pellman is her passion for the work she has chosen and her caring and concern for the children she serves every day," said attorney Cynthia Billey of the Los Angeles-based Alliance for Children's Rights, in nominating Pellman for the award.

The daughter of a New York psychologist who worked with disadvantaged children, Pellman always knew she wanted to "do something to help people." At age 16, she tutored hospital-bound children who were terminally and chronically ill. "I learned so much from the kids themselves, so much from their struggles," Pellman recalls. "I think that's probably where I started to get the bug."

After graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 1982, she worked a couple of jobs, including one as a political consultant, while searching for her niche. Then she heard about a new school devoted to training lawyers to do public interest law, an idea that she relished.

In 1987, she was among the graduates of the City University of New York Law School's second graduating class. In one of her first jobs, she helped a solo practitioner sue insurance companies on behalf of people suffering from AIDS.

In the early 1990s, Pellman moved west and began looking for public interest work in Los Angeles. Someone suggested that she visit the "child-friendly" Edmund D. Edelman Children's Court. "I walked into the building and I said to myself, 'This is where I want to be,'" she recalls. "It was like a gut reaction."

Pellman quickly found a mentor at Dependency Court Legal Services, now the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles, and landed a job representing children and parents. Many of her young clients had been abandoned, neglected or abused. Some had been born with drugs in their system. There were cases in which one parent had murdered the other.

"You name it," she says, "I saw it."

Some youngsters had little support. "Sometimes you do feel that unless you intervene, really bad things are going to happen to this child, and there's no one else there to advocate on their behalf," she said. "It's a scary feeling sometimes."

Pellman also watched her young clients struggle with issues beyond her scope. After seven years at Dependency Court Legal Services, she seized an opportunity to take a more "broad-based" approach to helping such children by joining the Alliance for Children's Rights. Now Alliance's legal director, she oversees legal services for impoverished children who are in foster care, need health care or are struggling with disabilities. She served as lead counsel in a recent lawsuit that succeeded in forcing Los Angeles social workers to keep closer tabs on thousands of foster children.

Pellman also helped create National Adoption Day. With Alliance's collaborative "Adoption Saturday" program as the model — a program in which several hundred foster children are adopted in a single day — Pellman and her co-workers, joined by a coalition of national partners, launched the idea nationwide. Last year, more than 1,500 foster children were adopted in 34 communities on the third annual National Adoption Day.

Pellman wants to see more change. She envisions major reform in the foster care system. She wants more support and services to help families stay intact. For those children who must be taken away from their parents, she says she doesn't want to see them bounced around.

"I want kids' first placement to be their last placement."

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