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Changing children’s lives

By Jeff Bleich
President, State Bar of California

Jeff Bleich

In two months my term as President will end, and the first thing I plan to do when I get home from the Annual Meeting in Monterey is play with my kids. Several of my columns this year have focused on how every child needs a caring adult in their lives, especially children who are in (or leaving) foster care, children in custody or immigration cases, children with learning disabilities and children who are hungry or homeless. After a year of working with some of the heroes in our profession who help these children, I’d liked to offer a picture of kids in America today and what we can all do.

The good news is that most kids in America today are doing fine. Statistically, your kids are fine, my kids are fine. In fact, kids growing up in relatively affluent two-parent families (where one parent has a professional degree) tend to do better than fine. Apart from watching too much reality TV, occasionally downloading disturbing things on their iPods and piercing things that God never intended to be pierced, most kids are doing pretty well. Nationally, 84 percent live in families with incomes above the poverty line, and more than two-thirds live in stable households with adequate housing.

But not all kids start out with the advantage of having financially secure and caring parents who have passed along a nice home and some enviable DNA. In fact, a larger proportion of U.S. children lack the basic support that they need than do children in virtually any other industrialized nation. The U.S. child poverty rate is among the highest in the developed world. The U.N. found that among industrialized nations, only Russia has a higher child poverty rate than the United States.

If you look at any of the bad things that can happen to youth, such as depression, drug use, teen pregnancy, violence, promiscuity or suicide, our rates are also disturbingly high. U.S. homicide rates among 15 to 24-year-olds are four to 73 times higher than for the next 21 most developed nations. To put that statistic in perspective, if you took the youth homicide rates for Austria, Japan, West Germany, Denmark, Portugal, England, Poland, Ireland, Greece and France, added them all together . . . and then tripled it, you’d get the U.S. rate.

Unfortunately, we have had an upside down view in how we treat high-risk youth. We are willing to spend the very least amount of our time and money to keep a kid safe and educated in a home with their family. We’ll pay far more to put him through a series of foster homes and dependency services. And we spend the most, the absolute limit, to institutionalize our children. And like most things in life, we got the system that we’ve paid for. We have a lot of neglected kids who are not safe and not getting an education. Many of them are going through our dependency courts, our juvenile courts, and winding up in institutions.

A child who can’t learn, and can’t get the special education he or she needs is more likely to be troubled. In the bar’s own backyard, we will have 20,000 dropouts in San Francisco alone and a 20 percent illiteracy rate. Where do these kids go? 2,411 are placed in foster care, and on average are shuttled from residence to residence to residence without any consistent adult in their life.

These are the children who need us the most. Too many of them never leave the system because no one is there to get them out. No adult is there to think about them. And so in courtrooms and hospitals around this state, children are turning up abused, beaten, pregnant, on drugs, lost, hopeless and desperately needing an adult in their lives.

If we are honest with ourselves, the vast majority of lawyers will admit that we don’t know these children at all. They are invisible to us. But what they need most is for us and other members of the public to know them. Because like every other child, they need some caring adults in their life who can do for them what we all expect our families to do.

Over the years local bars and agencies have built programs that can effectively connect lawyers to kids. Lawyers can provide four things: (1) legal advocacy; (2) mentoring; (3) economic opportunity; and (4) financial support. The key is that these programs are already here, and they just need for each of us to contribute in the way that fits us best.

Keeping families together

The Bar Association of San Francisco has set up a program for children whose families are being evicted to get them the social service, cash and legal help they need to get into decent housing. They also offer ways to keep families together by offering jobs to families in distress. For example, one program allows working mothers to care for their own children by matching them with attorneys who need day care. BASF also helps single parents with kids move from welfare to work, by training them to work in law firms and then placing them in law firm jobs.

And it has set up the responsible parenting project to work with parents who don’t have custody of their children to teach them and help them to become part of their child’s life again. For kids whose parents have abandoned them or cannot care for them, lawyers can join a legal guardian panel. With only a little bit of time, a lawyer can ensure that these children have a family: a caring aunt or relative who can be their legal guardian.

Championing children

If there is no caring family member, many programs let lawyers provide that care. This year, the California Young Lawyers Association piloted a project to train lawyers to help young people transitioning out of foster care. Their effort was so inspiring that one of the State Bar’s legal staff, Jill Sperber, took the training herself, so that she could assist young people leaving foster care. But we can all help keep kids in school and learning.

As every parent knows, students who can’t keep up in school often wind up in trouble. Bar associations around the state have established programs that get children an education and help with their learning and other disabilities. Lawyers can also represent special needs children who should be getting an individualized education plan and haven’t, or children in suspension and expulsion proceedings, or who need medical help for their disability.

Law academies

Bar associations throughout the state now offer kids hope for the future through local law academies. This year the Los Angeles County Bar Association started a law academy that helps struggling students by focusing their studies on legal issues, and giving them special assistance and direction. This program gives students hope by also preparing them to work in a law office, to get mentors and in some communities to work in an actual firm.

I know there are folks who think this is all good, but lawyers are too busy and they aren’t that good with kids (we do tend to use big words and we’re cautious to the point of being boring). On the latter point, there is no better cure for being pompous or boring than spending time with kids. But as for time, I know that we are all busy people. We sell our time in six-minute intervals. We are tethered to our e-mail, Blackberrys, cell phones, fax machines, voicemail; we are available to our clients, the courts and our adversaries 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Six minutes at a time and we often think we can’t possibly find the time for this work.

But if we do not have time for a child in need, then who does? We are among the most privileged people on the face of this earth. Each and every one of us has a graduate degree, when only 3 percent of the world’s population has ever been to college. Each of us is trained to protect individual rights. More than half the world’s population lives under totalitarian regimes where they have no rights. We practice in California, the richest and most populous state, in the richest and most powerful nation in human history, and as a profession we are among the wealthiest half of that state. If we do not take responsibility for a generation of neglected and suffering children in our own backyard, then who will? We should care about our time because with smart choices, that time could save thousands of children’s lives in this state.

So as I prepare to leave office this summer, I hope you’ll not only join me in Monterey for the annual meeting, but that afterward, you’ll take some time to play with a kid.

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