The following is a conversation between Karen Freedman, the Founder and Executive Director of Lawyers for Children, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: When children are in foster care, the biggest decisions in their lives are often made for them without their input. At Lawyers for Children, their mission is to give these children a voice in the decisions that will change their lives. And here tonight to discuss this with us is Karen Freedman, the Founder and Executive Director of Lawyers for Children.
Good evening, Karen, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Karen: Good evening. Thank you.
Our goal was to prove to the state that if children had representation, the outcomes would be better; and that it was critical that all children in foster care have an attorney – and in this case, an attorney and a social worker – representing them right from the beginning of a case.
Denver: Share with us how Lawyers for Children or LFC got started.
Karen: I began my legal career at The Legal Aid Society, a traditional legal services organization, and we had a really big strike – 10 weeks walking on the picket line. Now, I’m talking this was about 37 years ago. But when you’re outside the norm of your daily activity, you sometimes get more clarity about what’s going on. Walking on the picket lines, I realized that there was something missing in the model that was being used to represent children.
Although The Legal Aid Society has a few social workers on their staff, if you’re an attorney and you feel like you need a social worker on your case to help understand a child’s condition, situation, communication, development, whatever, you go to the social work division, and you beg for a social worker on your case. I knew what a difference it made to have a social worker and a lawyer on every single case, and I realized that that’s the model I wanted to create.
Now, there’s one other thing about the foster care system in New York that was in place at that time. There are two ways in New York State that you can enter foster care: You can be placed by the court on an abuse or neglect case; or you can be what’s called” voluntarily placed” by a parent or guardian. That means that the parent or guardian gives temporary custody, in theory, to the state while they deal with some issues in their own lives; for whatever reasons, they can’t care for their children. At that time, only children who entered foster care through the court system were entitled to an attorney.
And so, there were then almost 60% of the children in foster care had been voluntarily placed. Now, this was right around the time of the crack epidemic, and parents often didn’t want to be named in an abuse or neglect petition, and so they would voluntarily sign their child into care. There’s a huge number of kids who were languishing in care and never had any representation at all. Legal Aid didn’t represent children voluntarily placed. So, I decided that’s where I need to focus. I was seeing kids in delinquency cases, in termination of parental rights cases who had been lingering in foster care for years. And why? No one was speaking up for them. They didn’t have any representation.
So, after those 10 weeks on the picket line – very soon thereafter – I started Lawyers for Children as a pilot project with the courts. Our goal was to prove to the state that if children had representation, the outcomes would be better; and that it was critical that all children in foster care have an attorney – and in this case, an attorney and a social worker – representing them right from the beginning of a case.
…foster care is traumatic for any child, even when it’s the most successful placement. Being torn from your family is a long-lasting trauma that young people carry with them throughout their lives.
…living in a congregate care setting can often feel like prison to a child; it’s not a substitute for family
Denver: Help us a little bit get a better understanding of that foster care system. Are there less children in foster care today or more than when you started? Give us the good, the bad, and the ugly of that system.
Karen: About 37 years ago, there were 60,000 children in foster care in New York City. This year there are less than 9,000 children in foster care. I consider that a remarkable achievement and one that benefits children enormously. And just about five or six years ago, the system itself shifted to the point where more families were getting preventive services in their communities than there were families who had children removed from their homes or voluntarily placed their children in care. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that foster care is traumatic for any child, even when it’s the most successful placement. Being torn from your family is a long-lasting trauma that young people carry with them throughout their lives. There was a psychiatrist who once described it this way. He said, “Foster care is a little bit like surgery. In the most successful surgery, you will always have a scar.” Our goal is to keep that scar as small and as invisible, and to keep it to be as least intrusive as possible
Denver: Non-invasive surgery is what you’re looking to do.
Karen: Yes Exactly. Let’s put it that way.
Right now, one of the hardest things for young people in foster care that we’re seeing is, young people who are placed in residential treatment centers, group homes – living in a congregate care setting can often feel like prison to a child; it’s not a substitute for family.
I think there is a new law that was passed last year in New York – we’ll be complying with it in 2021 – that requires that the state change completely their focus on residential care and focus on family placements. There are all kinds of regulations: children can’t be in residential treatment for more than two weeks; any kind of residential care has to have proven outcomes. So, here’s the hope for that part of the system.
Most children that we see know where they’re safe; they know where they’re being supported. And if you just listen to them, you will find the best possible outcome.
…when that child comes into our office, they know that this is a space created for them, that we are there to be their voice, to amplify their voice, to help them make the decisions in their lives that will really change the trajectory.
Denver: Well, the organization – you operate on two different levels. You do one with the individual child and the challenges that they’re facing. And as you just alluded to, formulating public policy to improve that system.
So, let’s start with the children. What is your model, Karen…the framework you use when working with a child to help assure the very best outcome – the one the child wants?
Karen: That really requires a team and a holistic approach to representing a child. Our social workers and attorneys work very closely together so that our clients will benefit from client-directed representation. What that means is you don’t go into a room and say to a kid, “Oh, so what do you want? You want to go home? You want to stay in care?” It’s a deep dive into what’s going on in their lives. Most children that we see know where they’re safe; they know where they’re being supported. And if you just listen to them, you will find the best possible outcome. And very few people in their sphere are actually listening to them.
So, for example, if we have a child who grew up the first eight years of their life living with their grandfather in Puerto Rico, and he sends the child back to the mom in New York. The mom in New York can’t care for him; he ends up in foster care. Nobody is contacting the grandfather in Puerto Rico to see if the child could go back there. And why? Because no one is asking the child: Where do you want to live? Where do you feel safe?
But when that child comes into our office, they know that this is a space created for them, that we are there to be their voice, to amplify their voice, to help them make the decisions in their lives that will really change the trajectory.
Lawyers for Children is the only law office in the country that provides an attorney and a social worker for every single child at the beginning of every case.
Denver: Is it unusual in the foster care system across the United States to have a child who gets both a social worker and a lawyer to work with?
Karen: So, as far as we know, Lawyers for Children is the only law office in the country that provides an attorney and a social worker for every single child at the beginning of every case. There are many other offices that do use social work services and employ social workers, but to our knowledge, there’s no other office where every child has this team at their back.
Denver: In a given year, Karen, how many children will you represent?
Karen: We represent close to 3,000 children a year.
Denver: I’ve always wondered about this, but in a court of law, do attorneys for children represent to the court that child’s wishes? Or is it the attorney’s own opinion of what’s best for the child?
Karen: That’s a really interesting question. It varies state by state throughout the country. There are some attorneys who are charged with being what’s called a “guardian ad litem,” where their job is to tell the court what is best for the child, what they believe is best for the child. But in New York State, I believe we have the model system, and that is one that was enunciated and codified by Chief Judge Judith Kaye many years ago – not that many, actually, several years ago.
What she put down in writing is the way we’ve been practicing from the beginning. That is that every child has the right to an advocate, to an attorney who’s going to advocate their position. It’s the judge’s job to decide what’s best for the child. You’ve got people throughout that courtroom, all with their opinion about what’s best for the child, the agency where their child is placed, the city, the judge. We’re the only ones who are there saying, “And this is the child’s position,” and “This is what the child wants.”
Denver: Well, young people in foster care, boy, they face untold barriers and challenges in their journey to security and to independence, and there are some specific barriers as well.
Let’s talk about a few of those, starting with immigration. A young person in foster care who’s undocumented, let’s say, and who faces potential deportation. What do you do to help?
Karen: In New York and throughout the country, there is a statute that was designed specifically to help this group of children, and it’s called, familiarly, a SIJ statute. It stands for a Special Immigrant Juvenile status. What that means is the attorney for the child can go before the court and petition the court to grant SIJ status for a child, and what you need to show is that the parents have either abandoned that child, neglected that child, or that that child is at risk of being harmed, abandoned, if they were to return to their native country. And very often, children in foster care are placed when they’re very young. They don’t even know they’re not US citizens.
And so, one of the things that we do at the very beginning of every single case is determine where the child was born so that we can immediately protect them with a SIJ finding. Once that finding is made in a family court or juvenile court setting, that finding is brought to the immigration courts. And up until very recently when immigration views in this country were skewed by the President, a SIJ finding automatically meant a green card. And now, we’ve had tremendous pushback from the immigration courts. We have been successful, and I think that the SIJ finding, as it’s called, is still there and still viable, and we’re going to use it and fight for these kids as hard as we can every single time we find a SIJ-eligible client.
Denver: Well, you do fight for these kids every single day, that is for sure.
Data suggests that LGBTQ and Gender Non-Binary (GNB) youth are overrepresented in foster care and, boy, they have to contend with discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity. How can you help that population?
Karen: What we’ve done in our office is we’ve developed several special projects that deal specifically with extraordinarily vulnerable children in the foster care system. One of those projects is our LGBTQ project. The most important thing is that those young people feel that they’re living in an affirming situation. Very often, they’re running from home; sometimes they’ve been placed by parents who can’t accept their status, and we have an entire support network for them at Lawyers for Children.
Our goal is always to make sure that they end up in some place where they feel safe, they feel affirmed in their identity. We let them know that we care; we know who they are. There’s this old adage, “A child won’t care what you think unless they think that you care,” and that’s a critical part of building trust that allows us to really advocate for young people in the way that they need and deserve.
Denver: Boy, this is one that I do think of often, and that is adolescents who are aging out of the foster care system but are really ill-prepared to make that transition into an independent adult life. Now, how do you handle that and how do you serve that population?
Karen: That is truly a unique population. And so, we’re looking at young people who have no one…no one there for them once they leave foster care.
What we did in 2011, 2012 was convince the court in New York City to create a special part with a judge dedicated to adolescents, whose plan was to age out of the foster care system, who didn’t have the option to return home, who didn’t have the option of being adopted, and to make sure that those young people are prepared to age out successfully.
One of the things we did in that regard really explains the model that we operate on. So, we’d look individual by individual, and when we see patterns of abuse or risk, we try and make system-wide changes. We brought a class action lawsuit with The Legal Aid Society. The name of the suit is D.B. v. Richter, Ron Richter, a good friend who was commissioner at that time. What is on the books, as many people know, what is written down as the law is not always the way the law is put into practice.
Denver: Well said!
Karen: In this particular case, children, young people, young adolescents, young adults were being discharged from the foster care system to homelessness, and that is against the law. It’s against the regulations in New York State. And so, we brought a lawsuit against the state saying, “We don’t care how old these children are…if they’re 21, they’re 22, they’re 23. You cannot discharge them from care unless you can show them and us that you’re discharging them to a stable environment.”
Denver: A pathway.
Karen: Absolutely. A place where they have safe housing, where they have viable income stream and medical care. ACS (Agency for Children’s Services) has really changed their practice in that regard. We have many young people now who we’re still representing at age 22 or 23, some of them are in college, and the city is not dropping them all off on the sidewalk. They’re saying, “We will keep them in care. We will support them until we’re able to help them find stable housing.”
Denver: Is this done informally or on an ad hoc basis? Or has the law actually changed?
Karen: Well, there is a regulation, and there was, even at the time we brought the lawsuit, that said, “No child can be discharged to homelessness.” They had to prove that the housing stability was effective or in effect for at least a year after a child was discharged.
So the other thing that we did is within our own office, we created what we call the ACT Project, which is for Adolescents Confronting Transition. We have two social workers and two attorneys in the project, and we have something that I don’t believe any other office has, which is two youth advocates. These are young people who have aged out of the foster care system themselves and have made that transition successfully. Right now, one of the youth advocates in our office has his MBA, and the other one is finishing her college degree as we speak.
These are young people who are what are often called “credible messengers.” And when we, as attorneys or social workers look to a young adult like just another one of those people who is going to tell them what’s right, going to tell them what they have to do, it is transformative to have a young person sit right opposite them and say, “Look, I know where you’re coming from. I’ve been sitting in that chair. I’ve been sitting in your shoes. Listen to me. Let me try and tell you what we can do to help you make a successful transition.”
Denver: Yes. And these young people, let’s face it, they’ve never really had a role model, and they can look up to these youth advocates and say, “That’s a role model. If that person did it, I can do it as well.” They have something to strive for and somebody to emulate.
Denver: Well, you do all this stuff for free, so you must have some kind of funding model that allows you to do all this stuff for free. What is that funding model?
Karen: That funding model in New York City is a pretty unique model. But what happens is, because actually we did get the law changed in 1994 so now every child who enters foster care, no matter how they enter, by law, is entitled to have an attorney representing them, and the state has to pay for that attorney. That funding comes through the Office of Court Administration. So, the attorneys in our office are funded by the courts. That makes up about 70% of our funding. And the rest of it—
Denver: The social worker and the rest.
Karen: The social workers, the youth advocates, everything else that really distinguishes our office and allows us to provide the highest quality representation – that all comes from foundations, corporations, law firms, individuals.
The Robin Hood Foundation, for example, has been one of our greatest supporters, and specifically in the area that you just asked me about, for adolescents confronting transition. They are tremendous supporters of that project, and we feel that we have really made a tangible difference for that group of young people that we represent.
Denver: And I would imagine the legal community has been supportive as well.
Karen: The legal community has been supportive, although that’s one of our untapped resources. So, beware out there, law firms. We got you on our radar.
Denver: Karen, speak about your philosophy of leadership, the influences in your life that helped shape you as a leader, and maybe a lesson that you’ve learned along the way that has served you really well in this role.
Karen: That is a really interesting question. I would have to say that in terms of my legal career and the trajectory there, working at Legal Aid really makes you believe that you can do anything because you’re kind of thrown right into the pool, and you either sink or swim.
Denver: No training wheels.
Karen: You have to survive with a certain amount of optimism. I think anyone who works with children has to be, by nature, an optimistic, hopeful person. I think that that foundation really helped me have the courage to say, “Yeah, I’m just going to go out there and I’m going to start a new model of representing children.” I don’t think I could have done that if I didn’t have the experience at Legal Aid.
I think also when I was about 15-years-old, I worked at a place called Ramapo for Children. This was a summer camp for young people who were “emotionally disturbed” as what it was called at the time. The model that the leader of that program had was he wanted young people, young counselors that were close to the age of the kids. I was 15. I was placed in a bunk with 15-year-old kids. That was a really eye-opening experience. These were all inner-city kids, and I found how hungry these kids were for leadership and for role models. I think that also really influenced the way I looked at young people and about the idea of advocating on their behalf.
I think really what’s key at Lawyers for Children is that no one is there because they have to be there. Every single person in our office is working there because they have a very unique dedication to issues involving children and young people, and I think that is the thread that runs throughout the office. That’s what keeps people at Lawyers for Children for so long.
Denver: Along the same lines, tell us a little bit about your corporate culture. What makes it distinctive? What makes it a special place in which to work?
Karen: I think really what’s key at Lawyers for Children is that no one is there because they have to be there. Every single person in our office is working there because they have a very unique dedication to issues involving children and young people, and I think that is the thread that runs throughout the office. That’s what keeps people at Lawyers for Children for so long. Well over half of our staff, I think now two-thirds, has been in the office for 10 years or more, and it’s not because it’s a graveyard. It’s because people are doing the work that they love and because the young people they represent are, by and large, an inspiration.
I think the colleague-ship in the office is also critical. When you’re dealing with a similar population to everyone around you, you rely on your colleagues; you depend on your colleagues, and it’s your colleagues that support you and allow you to remain optimistic and hopeful even when you’ve had the worst possible day you can imagine.
Denver: Lift each other up.
Denver: That’s always very helpful.
Let me close with this, Karen. There are countless stories of the lives that you have helped to change as a result of this work. Share with us just one of those stories and how it’s been emblematic of that work.
Karen: So, we were in court one day on behalf of a 17-year-old young person. And what happens in the courtroom is the judge turns and looks at everybody lined up on two different sides of the benches in front of the court, and he – the judge was a man at this time – says to the agency who’s responsible for this child’s care, “Tell me what’s going on.” And a social worker says, “This young person is impossible. They don’t behave within program. They don’t obey curfew. They sleep all day long. We can’t reach them.”
Now, it turns out that we had gone out to the group home where this young person was living, and it was one of our youth advocates who woke this young person up in the morning, sat on their bed and said, “Tell me what’s going on. I’ve heard only facts and symptoms, but I want to know why. So, tell me what’s happening.” And this young person says, “This is what you’ll have to understand. I work at night. I work all night long. So, yeah, I’m going to sleep in the day. Of course, I need to sleep in the daytime. And do I want a GED program? Yeah. I would love a GED program. Do I want support from the people around me? Yes, but they have to understand who I am as an individual, not how I am a round peg in a square hole. They have to understand who I am.”
We were able to go back to the judge after that. What was being recommended was that this young person be placed in a more restrictive level of care because they weren’t “obeying program.” This young person now has graduated from college, is successful on every mark on the box you can make, and that wouldn’t have happened if somebody didn’t actually find out: who is the person behind this story? Not just what is happening, but why is it happening. And by allowing the court to understand what was going on in this young person’s life, it totally changed his life.
Denver: Changed everything. The assumptions we make, and how often they are wrong.
Denver: Well, Karen Freedman, the Founder and CEO of Lawyers for Children, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website and how people can help if they’re inspired to do so.
Karen: Please go to www.lawyersforchildren.org. I do want to say that on that site, young people will also find handbooks, information, one-minute videos, lots of resources to help them be self-advocates as well.
Denver: Well, thanks, Karen. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Karen: Thank you so much.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.