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Vol. 31, No. 1

At-Risk youth: Bar associations and foundations lend a helping hand

by Robert J. Derocher

The graduation rate in the Cleveland Municipal School District narrowly topped 50 percent last year, the first time in many years it had gotten even that high. In 1998, the district had the unwanted distinction of having the worst graduation rate among the 50 largest school districts in the country—an alarming 28 percent.

That’s why Cleveland Bar Association President Hugh McKay is calling on an army of 500 lawyer volunteers to help thousands of high school students learn a new version of the traditional three R’s this fall: “Rights, Responsibilities, and Realities.”

“The Cleveland and East Cleveland schools are not an unsolvable problem, but rather, as many of our lawyers already know, a great opportunity,” McKay said in unveiling the 3R’s initiative at a kickoff for his year as president in June. “And we don’t need any spin; we just need action.”

That is the kind of talk new ABA President Karen Mathis likes to hear.

“The problems for youth at risk [across the country] seem to be growing wider and deeper,” says Mathis, who convened a conference of attorneys, social experts, and youth earlier this year to examine the issue. “Everyone we’ve met with says that they need lawyers’ help. It’s got to be boots on the ground; it’s got to be help working with people in programs.”

Mathis has made helping 13- to 19-year-olds at risk an initiative for her presidential year. And she is looking for help, calling on state and local bars to share and compare resources and ideas with the ABA and each other.

What she is likely to discover is that, like the Cleveland bar, many bars across the country are reaching out to youth in a variety of ways. This article highlights just a few such programs.

Big plans

Mathis is building her presidential initiative off a long ABA history of involvement with youth, through entities such as its Division for Public Education and Center on Children and the Law. The February conference held at Hofstra University in New York state, Mathis says, set the stage for a string of ideas and programs that will enhance the ABA’s efforts.

One of the keys to her initiative, Mathis says, is partnership. In Chicago, for example, the ABA is embarking on a pilot project with the city Girl Scouts council and the Just the Beginning Foundation (an organization of African American lawyers and judges) on an eight-week program aimed at violence prevention and the law for middle and high school age girls.

If the pilot is successful, she says, the ABA will work with the Girl Scouts to roll out the program nationwide.

Another pilot project in Chicago teams the ABA with Cook County Juvenile Justice Division Judge Curtis Heaston in his effort to bring anti-violence video presentations to children in waiting rooms at the county’s Delinquency Court. An estimated 40,000 children a year could see the videos. It is also a program that could be replicated throughout the country, Mathis adds.

Mathis is eager to work with other bars and learn from their programs for at-risk youth, as well. Plans are in place for a coordinating council or center to bring all such projects together, she says, and she will extend invitations to the National Conference of Bar Presidents and the National Association of Bar Executives to have representatives on the council. Additionally, an ABA Web site has been set up to foster the sharing of program information.

“We’ve established a group of people to carry out the recommendations of the Youth At Risk conference in February. They are poised and ready to go,” says Liz Starrs, president of the Colorado Bar Association, which is working closely with Mathis, a Denver attorney and former member of the Colorado bar’s board of governors. “This is a huge problem that needs to be addressed. We’re committed to doing this.”

Community partnership

There is also commitment and partnership in Cleveland, where more than 200 of the bar’s 5,000 members signed on to participate in the 3R’s program before McKay even officially announced it. The Cleveland Municipal School District, the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, and other members of the legal community are also participating.

Under the program, teams of five attorneys will spend this coming school year visiting an estimated 5,400 10th graders. A primary aim is to help the students study for an Ohio civics test that must be passed for graduation. But perhaps more important, McKay says, the lawyers will address preparation for college and offer career counseling that could result in more students seeking a career in law.

“I am so excited on all counts. It’s something that’s very, very needed,” says Louise Dempsey, who holds the unusual position of being a member of the city school board, a member of the Cleveland bar, and assistant dean of Cleveland-Marshall Law. “This is fantastic for the kids, and if we can get them to pass the test and to think about the law as a career and college, it would be great.”

A pilot program earlier this year at South High School—where city police presence is a norm—was well received by students, teachers, and bar members, according to McKay. “I expected some real attitudes and resistance, but [students] came, and they were receptive and open-minded,” he says. There will be some positive relationships that will be coming from this.”

In Louisiana, the Lafayette Parish Bar Association partnered with a high school in a minority community to create the Northside Law Signature High School, one of only three such schools in the state that offer courses and programs that highlight the law and legal processes. Bar members regularly participate in programs such as job shadowing, moot court competitions, and Law Day at the school, where more than half of the students are eligible to receive free lunch under federal guidelines.

“We’ve got to start reaching out more to disadvantaged youth,” says Frank Neuner, a member of the Lafayette bar and the immediate past president of the Louisiana State Bar Association. “We need to get them more interested in a law-related curriculum.”

Helping juvenile offenders

While many bar efforts are aimed at helping at-risk youth before they have encounters with the legal system, there are others that seek to help during and after such experiences. That is what the DuPage County Bar Association and the neighboring Kane County Bar Foundation in Illinois do, in conjunction with a local Boy Scouts council. For 10 years, the organizations have worked together on a diversion program that offers 10 weeks of education, counseling, and mentoring for youth who have had their first minor run-ins with school and legal authorities.

Volunteer lawyers from the two groups meet with the 13- to 17-year-olds to discuss issues such as substance abuse, anger management, and ways to avoid becoming repeat offenders.

“You have a wide range of kids, from low income to upper income,” says Paul Glaser, an assistant deputy defender in Kane County and a member of the foundation’s board of directors who has participated in the program. “Virtually every kid who enters this program thinks they’re really tough criminals, but they learn that they’re at the bottom of the [criminal] food chain. We stress to them, ‘You can change this, right now.’ ”

Rich Dennis of the Three Fires Boy Scouts Council likes the program and the results: About 75 percent avoid recidivism, he says. “It sends a good message to the kids. A lot of them think that lawyers are the bad guys, that they’re out to get them,” he notes. “And a lot of lawyers see enough of the bad kids. This is a chance for both groups to see something good.”

In setting up such a program, it’s important to keep in mind the particular needs of your area, says Karen Ruan, executive director of the Orange County (Calif.) Bar Foundation. Since 1980, it has offered the SHORTSTOP diversion program, which brings juvenile offenders and their families together in a courtroom setting with legal professionals and juveniles who are currently California Youth Authority wards. Offering both tough talk regarding the consequences of the offenders’ actions and positive reinforcement to help them make better choices, SHORTSTOP has long been a model for other such programs across the country.

While continuing to focus on this program, the foundation has since branched out. Because many families of juvenile offenders in Orange County do not speak English as a first language, the foundation also offers a Spanish-language SHORTSTOP program. The OCBF makes its services available to the Hispanic community in other ways, as well: A mentoring program for Hispanic teenage girls that is aimed at encouraging them to stay in high school has evolved to also include encouragement to attend college—and help with paperwork and other details. “We realized no one was talking to these girls about college,” Ruan notes, adding that many families have a tradition of keeping their daughters at home until they marry.

Another program, Stop Short of Addiction, took shape when foundation leaders and others involved with SHORTSTOP saw that substance abuse is a pervasive problem among youth in Orange County, one that is often a contributing factor in other juvenile offenses. The substance abuse program, in turn, helped lead to one that offers education regarding HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and links to providers of testing and other services. Young Hispanic women are a particular focus here, too, Ruan says, because many are reluctant to ask their partners about their histories or to demand that they use protection.

The foundation is currently at work on a program that will offer assistance and family counseling for juvenile offenders who have entered the juvenile system at the county level (as opposed to SHORTSTOP, which diverts them from this system), in hopes that they will return to school and avoid recidivism. The development of so many new programs has been a natural progression, Ruan says: “Everything kind of gradually grows.”

Helping at-risk youth can also mean a bit of risk-taking for bar associations, as the Chicago Bar Association has discovered. The bar made the decision last year to step into a potentially fractious political and social debate by assisting in the reform of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago. The center is the subject of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of juveniles who said the center suffered from a climate of “chaos and violence.”

“I read the stories [about deterioration of the center], and I said, ‘We’ve got to do something,’” recalls Michael Hyman, immediate past president of the 22,000-member bar. Hyman and other bar leaders met with the county’s political leaders who oversee the center, as well as with the ACLU, and then set up a blue-ribbon committee of lawyers, teachers, and community leaders to offer recommendations for reforming the center. The panel’s report was due just after press time.

“We thought there might be some resistance [from Cook County] because it’s a political issue, but they issued a press release [announcing establishment of the committee] about an hour after we had the meeting,” Hyman says. “They realized that we have a different perspective. We have no ax to grind. We’re helping the kids.”

Homeless ... and in high school

Reaching youth at risk can sometimes mean going outside the bounds of the normal classroom setting. That is what the 500-member Erie County (Pa.) Bar Association discovered in 2000 when it launched Attorneys and Kids Together. Working with social service agencies, the bar established the program to reach an estimated 300 youth a year living in temporary or semipermanent homeless shelters throughout the county.

The bar focuses on the educational needs of the youth by providing items such as backpacks, school uniforms, and fees for the SAT in 11th grade. Separate “study centers” have also been built in five shelters, giving students a quiet place to do schoolwork. The centers also include computers, printers, and workstations.

Several lawyer volunteers also participate in the program’s Senior Project, says Sandra Brydon Smith, the bar’s executive director. That project provides funding and assistance to help youth obtain prom tickets and attire, photographs, graduation caps and gowns, and yearbooks.

“There’s no way that high school seniors should miss out on these unique moments in life,” Smith says. “They are often very bright students who find themselves in a difficult situation and just need some help.”

Some bars have found that helping at-risk children and youth involves helping their mothers, too (for an inside look at one such program, see “The Civil Pro Bono Project: Helping incarcerated mothers help their children,” page 16). The Lawyers Club of San Diego joins forces with the San Diego County Bar Association and the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program to co-sponsor the annual Women’s Resource Fair. The fair brings hundreds of homeless and battered women and their children of all ages to a central location where they can receive assistance and counseling from a variety of legal and social service organizations.

In 17 years, the program has grown from attracting 30 agencies and 300 women to helping more than 550 women with representatives from more than 50 agencies, says Karin Vogel, co-chair of the fair committee for the Lawyers Club.

The fair, she says, is an indirect boost to youth at risk who benefit from a more stable home life. There are also lawyers and social service providers who provide direct assistance to youth. “We have 100 to 150 attorneys there during the day,” Vogel says. “It’s a terrific program. Once you’re a part of it, it’s very addictive.”

Another great way to help

While volunteerism and activism are critical to the mission of helping youth at risk, old-fashioned financial support remains another vital part of the solution, bar leaders say. In addition to its work in helping improve the Cook County juvenile facility, the Chicago Bar Association joins with the Chicago Bar Foundation to funnel resources to youth mentoring programs in Chicago through the Abraham Lincoln Marovitz Lend-a-Hand program.

The bar also provides financial support for youth that includes organizational fundraising, providing sports and cultural affairs tickets, and encouraging lawyers to participate in mentoring programs. The association recently helped support a program that brings youth from suburban Chicago into the city to serve as tutors for at-risk youth, Hyman says.

The Boston Bar Association has long been involved with efforts to help at-risk youth, and recently provided funding for development and distribution of more than 3,500 parent-help guides for children’s mental health services, says Bonnie Sashin, the bar’s communications director. The Boston Bar Foundation, meanwhile, awards grants to several organizations that offer services to at-risk youth.

In 2002, the Columbus Bar Association and Foundation pledged a combined $400,000 to assist in child abuse treatment, investigation, and research at Columbus Children’s Hospital, says Marion Smithberger, the foundation’s executive director. The foundation also pledged additional funds in order to secure a $150,000 matching grant from the Kresge Foundation. Other programs the bar and foundation have helped fund over the years include a juvenile court system program to assist teens with drug and alcohol problems, and a teen court diversion program for first-time, nonviolent juvenile offenders.

The Nassau County (N.Y.) Bar Association’s WE CARE Fund helps at-risk youth in a number of ways, including a scholarship to help defray college costs for high school students who demonstrate involvement in school and community activities that benefit the less fortunate, and personal perseverance through extreme and challenging life circumstances. Recipients are usually from lower-income areas. Other fund recipients include programs aimed at helping families that are going through a divorce, with the goal of reducing the trauma and disruption felt by the children involved.

In Georgia, both the Atlanta Bar Association and the Georgia Bar Foundation have helped support the Truancy Intervention Project, which pairs lawyer and nonlawyer volunteers with chronically absent students and their families. The volunteers provide legal representation in truancy proceedings in the Fulton County Juvenile Court, and also work with the court’s probation officers to bring together social and community resources to help the child and family. The Atlanta bar helps publicize the program and drum up volunteers, and sponsored a fundraising campaign in 2000 that generated a million dollars for the program. The Georgia Bar Foundation, meanwhile, has partnered with TIP to help the program move beyond Atlanta to assist youth and families elsewhere in the state.

Whether the support is through finances, sweat equity, or volunteerism, it is all needed more than ever, says Mathis, in order to give at-risk youth the opportunity to escape the situations that many find themselves in. And lawyers and bar associations and foundations, she says, are in a unique position to help—and to do it together.

“Lawyers intersect with so many members of these groups,” she says. “I would be thrilled to see the state and local bars have their own committees for youth at risk. Lawyers have so many portable skills.

“If you’re interested in helping,” she adds, “let us know.”


While ABA President Karen Mathis’ Youth at Risk initiative is aimed at helping primarily 13- to 19-year-olds, some groups focus on younger children, identifying and helping many at-risk kids before they even get to middle school.

“I get a great sense of satisfaction that I’ve done something good,” says Melanie Rubinsky, chair of the Houston Bar Association’s IDEA (Inter-professional Drug Education Alliance) Program. “I have no doubt that this has some positive impact on kids.”

Now in its 14th year, the program teams a Houston bar volunteer with a medical or psychological professional. The pair then talks about the legal and medical ramifications of drug use with hundreds of fifth graders in Houston and surrounding communities each year.

The Houston bar also has partnered for 15 years with an elementary school in one of the most economically disadvantaged communities in the city. Volunteer lawyers participate in reading and tutoring, book and clothing drives, and a career day, says the program co-chair, Byron Cherry.

The Lawyers Club of San Diego takes a similar approach, working for 10 years with an elementary school in an economically disadvantaged area. Volunteer lawyers regularly read to children and helped build a “Literacy Garden” on the school grounds, giving children a quiet place to read.

“We found that some of these kids had never even owned a book,” says Michele Macowsky, co-chair of the bar’s committee. “A lot of children have told us that they want to be professionals like us.”

The Chicago Bar Association also works directly with a single school—the William C. Goudy School—that once earned a national reputation for failure. The bar’s Young Lawyers Section “adopted” the K-8 school in 2003, providing books, instruments to launch a music program, and visits by lawyers that focused on the law.

The results have been praised by students and educators alike, says Michael Hyman, immediate past president of the Chicago bar. “They had 95 kids signed up to play eight guitars,” Hyman says of the school’s successful new music program. “There’s a lot of personal satisfaction [for our volunteers] there.”

The Erie County (Pa.) Bar Association’s Attorneys and Kids Together program includes an elementary mentoring program that pairs a lawyer with a homeless 5- to 12-year-old, and includes structured outings, shopping trips, and learning experiences that often involve a mentor attorney’s family, says Sandra Brydon Smith, the bar’s executive director. When the program was first launched in 2003, there were eight volunteer bar members participating, Smith says; this year, there were 19.

The Hillsborough County (Fla.) Bar Association’s West Tampa Elementary Project rewards good behavior among students at a troubled and underperforming Tampa elementary school, with the thought that encouraging a more peaceful atmosphere can help boost academic scores, as well. Teachers give gold stickers to students who treat each other and school staff members well; the stickers entitle the students to attend a program coordinated by the bar each month. The program includes a snack, a take-home gift, such as a bookmark or pencil, and entertainment, such as a visit from members of the local orchestra or from a zoo staffer who brings animals. There are also quarterly and yearly rewards for those who consistently exhibit good behavior.

“We thought the involvement might fall off, but it has increased,” notes Connie Pruitt, executive director of the Hillsborough bar. “The school has improved, the kids have responded, and the teachers’ enthusiasm has increased.” Three other schools in disadvantaged areas have now asked to participate, Pruitt says.

While Rubinsky praises the efforts of programs helping at-risk older teens, she believes programs for younger students, like those provided by her bar, are becoming more vital as children seem to learn potentially unwanted habits at an early age.

“For many of them, they’re about to take the next step into an older school, and the peer pressure is just incredible,” she says. “They understand more things now. It’s a very influential age.”

And that is why Rubinsky and others provide what they will hope to be positive influences in the future.



There is much to be gained from lawyer-in-the-classroom visits, but some bars have found that focused, one-on-one attention is a great way to engage hearts as well as minds.

One such bar is the Monroe County (N.Y.) Bar Association. Some volunteers in the almost 13-year-old Lawyers for Learning Program are matched with a group of children or a classroom at Rochester’s School 39, but others are paired with an individual child. School 39, an elementary school, is in a disadvantaged area of the city. Each week, the lawyer volunteer meets with the child or children and spends an hour helping with reading or other schoolwork. The volunteers also raise funds for school trips, parties, books, and other supplies.

“What cannot be missed is the support they provide these children in terms of friendship and positive example,” says Mary Corbitt, the bar’s executive director. “Many of these children lack either a mother or father in their lives, and they come to love and anticipate the attorney visits.”

Through the Nassau County (N.Y.) Bar Association’s Student Mentoring Program, also going on 13 years old, lawyers and judges meet one on one with at-risk middle school students two mornings a month for 45 minutes each session. The yearly program culminates in a catered celebration at the bar’s headquarters, attended by the mentors, students, and the students’ teachers, principals, and school superintendents. In a moment that lets mentors know just how much they are appreciated—and that prompts more than a few tears—the students are given the opportunity to take the microphone and tell what the program has meant to them.

Last year, the Dallas Bar Association began a program that it believes is a first—an “e-mentoring” program that assists ninth graders in a high school in a disadvantaged area. The bar chose to work with ninth graders because the superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District said that grade is a particularly critical one and that, in in his district, about half the students drop out in the ninth grade.

The mentoring program isn’t conducted exclusively via e-mail; the lawyers and students meet for a kickoff pizza party and periodically throughout the year. The weekly e-mails between each lawyer and student (the students’ messages are reviewed by a teacher) are a way to stay in regular contact regarding school, and life in general.

More than 700 lawyers participate, some mentoring more than one student, and so far, none of the students have dropped out of school, says Cathy Maher, executive director of the Dallas bar.

“We believe it has already had an impact on them,” she adds.

—By Marilyn Cavicchia


If you need help starting or strengthening a program to help at-risk youth, the ABA can help.

To stay up to date regarding the at-risk youth presidential initiative discussed in this article, to learn more about exemplary bar association and foundation programs, and for an overview of ways a number of ABA entities reach out to at-risk children and youth, visit

Two ABA entities that have a particular focus on children, youth, and the law are the Division for Public Education ( and the Center on Children and the Law (

Another great source of information about bar programs is the ABA Division for Bar Services Information Clearinghouse at BL

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.