CHILD LAW HEROES
If you practice in Philadelphia in the child law arena, you know Bob Schwartz. The “child welfare guru in Philly” has headed the Juvenile Law Center (JLC) for 35 years. His work at JLC spans dependency and delinquency work through direct legal representation and policy advocacy.
“Everyone knew him,” said Mimi Laver, director of legal education at the ABA Center on Children and the Law, recalling when she first sought Schwartz out in 1990. “I was finishing law school and doing a clerkship. It was a time when nonprofits didn’t have money to hire. He had enough enthusiasm and belief that I’d get a job in child welfare that he stuck with me. There was always a sense that there was a career path in child welfare.”
Although Schwartz was not planning on hiring her, she said he still took her under his wing and stepped in as a mentor. “He was excited about child welfare and was glad to work with people who wanted to work in the field.” Schwartz shared advice and contacts as Laver started down her career path, taking a job representing the departments of health and human services at the City Solicitor’s Office in Philadelphia. Schwartz checked in over the years, maintaining an informal mentoring relationship that Laver said she now uses with newer, younger attorneys with whom she works.
Twenty years later, while the mentoring relationship has faded, Laver still finds motivation in many of Schwartz’s qualities. “He’s outspoken and passionate about kids and seems to know how to do the right things,” said Laver. “He knows how to push the right buttons. He starts as a collaborator, but is not one to stop if the collaboration is not working.”
In response to a recent high-profile scandal in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, in which juvenile court judges were taking kickbacks to place juveniles in privately owned juvenile detention facilities, Schwartz and the JLC were on the forefront right away. The case represented a setback in a state long viewed as a leader in juvenile justice reform, a distinction largely influenced by Schwartz’s and JLC’s work. Responding quickly, JLC assisted with a federal lawsuit seeking to hold the judges and other involved parties accountable. Schwartz also called for reforms through his testimony at a juvenile justice commission hearing held by the MacArthur Foundation.
Despite trying times and daily stresses, Schwartz manages to stay upbeat and optimistic. Laver cites his sense of humor and his ability to keep his eye on what is right for kids as factors that help him move forward through rough spots. “He is incredibly hysterical about random things and doesn’t take things so seriously. He hasn’t gotten so mired in his passion for his work that he can’t see outside of that,” said Laver.
“It can get very depressing. In some ways he’s removed [while doing policy work], but he’s also ‘down in it’ on the front lines. It can get tiring,” said Laver. Schwartz’s “sense of how kids should be treated” keeps him going. “When you have a sense of what is right, you can feel like you’re making progress, even if things are not turning out the way you planned, or things are going slowly.” Laver attributes this quality to Schwartz’s long-staying power in the field.
Keeping busy and having his hands in so many areas also creates the variety and new challenges that drive Schwartz’s commitment to the field. Although a fixture in the Pennsylvania child welfare and juvenile justice communities, Schwartz’s impact is also felt nationally through his efforts to create practice and systems –level change on many issues, notably the juvenile death penalty and juvenile sentencing and, more recently, education reform. “I am happy to see that he’s collaborating with the Center on such important issues as education,” said Laver. Along with the Education Law Center, JLC has joined the ABA in developing the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education, a national information and technical assistance resource focused on education issues related to children in foster care. JLC’s on-the-ground experiences and successes in Pennsylvania have helped shape the Legal Center and its work in other states.
Schwartz’s tireless contributions to many ABA juvenile justice and child welfare initiatives trace back many years. “He’s very active in the ABA and he works hard to move issues forward in a positive way,” said Laver. He’s also testified before the U.S. Congress and shared his expertise on juvenile justice and children’s legal issues in many states.
But Schwartz’s heart is in Philly. When asked what a good day for Schwartz would be, Laver said: “Winning a big case would be the best kind of day.” Bringing in grant dollars to support the work of the JLC would also rank highly. He would also enjoy a day when some of the newer staff at JLC won a case. “It would represent a success for kids and the people he has invested in at JLC,” said Laver. That ability to focus on what’s best for kids and invest in others drew Laver to seek Schwartz out 20 years ago. Today, they are what make him her child welfare hero.