September 01, 2011

What Difference Can a Quality Lawyer Make for a Child?

Children in dependency and delinquency proceedings need counsel. They don’t always have one, and the results can be disastrous.

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Kenya Mann Faulkner was spurred to action when she received an email in April 2008 from her firm’s pro bono coordinator asking if someone could help a 16-year-old girl in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Cathy (minors’ names have been changed for this article), an honor student who had never been in trouble with the law, had been sent to a boot camp by a judge for having less than one gram of marijuana in her car. Faulkner, then a partner at Ballard Spahr LLP in Philadelphia and now Pennsylvania’s inspector general, was shocked to learn that Cathy was not represented by an attorney at her trial. “My first thought was, ‘This is not a third-world country. These things go on in other countries, not here in the United States,’” she says.

Faulkner and her colleague Amy Shellhammer, then a Ballard associate and now a law clerk to U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice, quickly volunteered to get Cathy out of the boot camp and back to her parents. Shellhammer, herself a former public defender in Philadelphia, was equally appalled. “From my experience as a public defender, a child like Cathy—an honor student, who was active in 4-H and had a job, and who has wonderful, supportive parents—would get 20 hours of community service without ever having to go to court,” she explained. “That child would come in, show she completed the community service, and the case would get dismissed. Not only did Cathy get placed, but she also now had a delinquency record that could affect her future, including her ability to get federal financial aid to go to college.”

Cathy’s parents did not get a lawyer for her because they thought the judge would be fair and sentence Cathy to probation and community service, this being her first offense. Instead, Cathy’s parents were asked by a probation officer to sign a piece of paper when they got to court for her hearing; they later learned that they had signed a waiver of counsel form. “But the rules of juvenile court procedure clearly require that the youth have an out-loud, on-the-record, in-court colloquy by the judge to waive the right to counsel,” explains Shellhammer. “Parents cannot waive the child’s right to counsel. If the child wants a lawyer, she gets it. A signed paper from probation outside the courtroom is irrelevant.”


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