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October 28, 2014 Articles

Book Review: Changing Lives: Lawyers Fighting for Children

By Monique R. Sherman

Lourdes M. Rosado
Changing Lives: Lawyers Fighting for Children
ABA Book Publishing

Written and edited by attorneys practicing on the ground in almost every area of legal child advocacy, Changing Lives: Lawyers Fighting for Children provides a valuable resource to several different audiences: law students who went to law school to "help the children" but are not sure what that means or how their particular skills and interests would best translate to helping children; attorneys in private practice who would like to focus their pro bono efforts on assisting children but are not sure where to start; and attorneys who are making a foray into the area of child advocacy and want a brief primer at a 30,000-foot level that will explain what issues may be involved and identify red flags. The book is also a terrific resource for children's lawyers who have been practicing for years and who might use the book for inspiration or to educate others about why lawyers make a difference in the lives of children.

Each chapter focuses on a different area of practice. The book includes chapters on representing children in immigration, school discipline, and juvenile justice proceedings; advocating for children who are homeless or have mental health problems; and representing youth charged as adults. Other chapters focus on representation in child welfare cases—from very young children to youth transitioning out of foster care—and in impact litigation to change the system.

Each chapter begins with a vignette about a real client that will motivate readers to engage with similar clients. Notably, each of the vignettes incorporates elements of types of child advocacy addressed in other chapters. Readers who are experienced in almost any form of child advocacy will recognize the truth in each of the stories—they could easily be fabricated, like a law school fact pattern, to pull together the myriad of issues that may face a child client. But we child advocates know that they are not only real stories but typical ones, because the intertwining of social, economic, educational, mental health, child welfare, and juvenile justice issues is the hallmark of representing children.

Following the vignette in each chapter, the authors describe the trends in the area of practice, the pitfalls to watch out for, and useful practice tips—some general and some as specific as a list of potential motions to make in court.

Chapter 1 describes the classic job of the child advocate—representing infants and toddlers in child welfare proceedings. The authors point out the importance of having a separate advocate for these children who is not beholden to "the system" and whose focus is on the development of and permanency for the specific child. The authors point out at least two factors that are too often ignored for advocates to consider: (1) although it is the preferred outcome, reunification is not always in the child's best interest; and (2) courts are not always bound by agency policies on placement—often the court could order a placement or other disposition that the agency would not be able to support based on its own policy—but only if a dedicated child advocate has researched and investigated the possibilities and is present in the courtroom to make the request.

Next, the authors take on representation of youth in juvenile delinquency proceedings. The authors make an important point about the prevalence in the juvenile justice system of children with disabilities, minority children, and children in poverty. In addition, the authors point out the significant feeder effect of increasing zero-tolerance policies in schools, resulting in increased arrests due to school infractions. Finally, the authors discuss crossover youth—those involved in the child dependency system who become embroiled in delinquency proceedings.

Advocates for children and youth in immigration proceedings have received increased attention recently, and Chapter 3 provides a brief primer on the types of immigration relief potentially available to immigrant youth, including asylum, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, T-visas, U-visas, and Violence Against Women Act petitions. The most interesting thing about this chapter, though, came through its beginning vignette—the story showed an attorney who questioned the assumptions that everyone else accepted, and the attorney discovered her client was actually an unaccompanied minor, protected by multiple immigration laws. This lesson carries through to most of the other forms of advocacy described in the book, as well: Most of the information we know about child clients, unlike adults, is going to come from other people, whether or not those people have access to full or accurate information. A skilled and dedicated advocate is often necessary to challenge the information received from those adult sources who may have their own interests at heart.

In Chapter 4, the authors describe a classic story for anyone who has represented a child with learning disabilities who is referred for expulsion: An argument develops in class for reasons related to the child's disability (in this case, a request to read aloud, made to a young man whose disability makes that a herculean task); a frustrated young person acts out, comes into physical contact with a school staff member, and finds himself or herself in dual-track expulsion and delinquency proceedings. The chapter identifies trends that are at once commonly voiced but jarring: African American students are three and a half times as likely as white students to be suspended. Students with disabilities are suspended and expelled disproportionately compared with students in regular education. For those in law school or private practice looking for pro bono opportunities, the chapter offers some concrete information that might make this area of practice more appealing: Students are entitled to due process in school discipline proceedings and specifically (in many jurisdictions) to cross-examine witnesses against them. This can provide a great opportunity for attorneys to use their skills in ways they might not have recognized were possible.

Chapter 5 introduces one of the most difficult (and, for that reason, important) issues a child advocate can grapple with—school responses to mental health problems of students. The red flag that this chapter's vignette illustrates so well is that the student had consistent behavioral problems and an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) but no mention of or attention to the behavioral problems in the IEP. The chapter also highlights the proliferation of psychotropic medication for children, often without proper medication management or even appropriate underlying evaluations. Most importantly, though, this chapter illustrates the profound effect that restrictive "treatment," such as placement in residential treatment facilities, can have on a young person. The client described in this chapter viewed his placement in a residential treatment facility as incarceration—and why wouldn't he? He was removed from his family, community, and school, and he knew that the treatment wasn't helping him. For him, this was punishment. This is the one vignette in the book without a satisfying resolution. Indeed, it appears that this area is one of the most difficult for advocates to make real progress in, but in many ways, that is all the more reason that it is important for lawyers to be involved in representing children with mental health issues and to be well trained on how to effectively advocate for them.

Runaway and homeless youth are often depicted in the media with far less sympathy than the author of Chapter 6 engenders. Instead of painting homeless youth as mini-delinquents, the author aptly points out that they are often taking matters into their own hands to protect themselves when other systems, such as the child welfare system, will not protect them. This chapter describes the resources available to homeless youth in a very clear way, and it points the reader to several federal authorities related to those resources.

In Chapter 7, the authors describe the work advocates around the country are increasingly focused on doing to decertify children charged with crimes as adults so that they may be adjudicated in juvenile courts. The opening vignette describes an interdisciplinary team who went far beyond the courtroom to make sure that the juvenile court could order resources to support treatment and rehabilitation of the client, which makes it easier for a criminal judge to justify sending the youthful offender back to juvenile court. The chapter also includes a number of useful checklists and practical information for those interested in working in this area.

The last chapter of the book that focuses on direct representation is aptly named "Keeping the Door Open" and describes the advocacy attorneys do to keep older children who are approaching majority engaged and receiving services. The chapter explains the reason such advocacy is vital—poor outcomes for young people who age out of foster care are well documented, including failure to graduate high school or attain a General Educational Development certificate, lack of employment and underemployment, homelessness, early pregnancy, and incarceration. The authors describe transition plans that are required by federal law for youth in foster care over the age of 16 and the federal reimbursement that is available if state systems provide independent living and other services to youth between the ages of 18 and 21. Additional resources, such as scholarships, are also described. The checklists at the end of the chapter provide an excellent outline for advocates looking to create a transition plan for aging-out youth.

Changing Lives closes with a description of two pieces of impact litigation undertaken by legal services and pro bono attorneys that made drastic changes in the way state and local agencies approached the care of the children in their charge. As the authors point out, it is axiomatic that when a child must be removed from his or her parents, the state's job is to care for that child. Unfortunately, the authors contend, a number of factors in many states lead to re-traumatization and risk for children involved in the child welfare system after they have been removed from the families who are unable to care for them. The authors establish the importance of working on larger-scale litigation and policy changes alongside the everyday, individual advocacy described elsewhere in the book.

One of the most important characteristics of each of the first eight chapters of Changing Lives is the emphasis on the collateral consequences of each type of legal problem a child might face: If the child is adjudicated delinquent, what effect will that adjudication have on his or her immigration status? If the child testifies in his or her defense in expulsion proceedings, what effect will that have on the child's related delinquency proceedings? How do a child's special educational needs and the school's failure to meet them affect his or her ability to stay in school even after what would otherwise be labeled a "zero tolerance" offense? These questions are the questions any child advocate ought to be asking throughout the representation of a child, no matter what the subject matter, because for almost every child who has a legal problem requiring representation, these separate realms of legal problems often interact significantly. As a result, this book will be a terrific tool for even the most experienced child advocate.

Changing Lives can be a good guide for attorneys or law students who have a heartfelt desire to use their legal training to help children but want to learn about the various avenues to do so. For attorneys just starting in one of these areas of the law, many of the chapters provide practical advice about the practice and resources. Read as a whole, the book is an excellent showcase of the myriad of legal problems that one action, or set of actions, can spur and why our most vulnerable children need well-trained, dedicated attorneys who specialize in each of the areas described.

To purchase Changing Lives: Lawyers Fighting for Children, please visit the ABA store.

Keywords: litigation, children's rights, legal representation, juvenile justice, child welfare

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Monique R. Sherman – October 28, 2014