Friday, Sept. 18, 2009 | 3 a.m.
The Children’s Attorneys Project at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, and its work shouldn’t go unnoticed.
It was formed in 1999 by a task force of Clark County commissioners, District Court judges, social workers, attorneys, family law judges and children’s rights workers. It was created as a way for abused and neglected children who are in foster care, institutions or are wards of the state to have a voice in court and speak out about their futures, says Janice Wolf, directing attorney of the project.
Legal Aid has nine in-house attorneys assigned to the project, up from one when it began a decade ago. They are Wolf, Greg Ivie, Ron Kirschenheiter, Melissa Casal, Gia McGillivray, Candace Barr, Jennifer Silverman, Erin Finsten and Xavier Planta.
“It is a wonderful thing,” Wolf says. “We are excited about it. When the Children’s Attorneys Project started 10 years ago, we were one of the few states that didn’t have representation (for children) at all. It was a black mark for Nevada.”
The attorneys provide counsel, advice and representation for abused and neglected children, Wolf says. The project probably represents a little more than one third of the children who are wards of the court, she says.
The children are at a disadvantage if they don’t have representation, and they linger in the system, Wolf says. She says children who have attorneys tend to be adopted more quickly or return to their homes faster.
“We represent their legal interests to make sure that the state and federal laws are followed in getting them permanent placement,” Wolf says. “They shouldn’t linger in foster care. That’s bad for kids.”
Sometimes when children stay in the system too long, they become a problem. That’s unfortunate because they did nothing to put themselves in that situation, she says.
One big issue, she says, is to help children in terms of their medication to deal with mental issues. Some are overmedicated, and their attorneys help them resolve the problems with the court, she says.
“Our position is, and we feel very strongly about this, is our kids really have a good idea of what’s in their best interest,” Wolf says. “They know where they would be loved and cared for. Part of what we counsel kids is to give them a voice to empower them, and when a child says, ‘That is my lawyer,’ it makes them feel somebody is listening to them.”
One issue the attorneys fight for the most is keeping siblings together, Wolf says. There are cases when people want to adopt the youngest sibling, but not take the others in the family, she says.
“We really fight to keep brothers and sisters together,” she says. “Sometimes that’s the only family they have.”
Despite the work the Children’s Attorneys Project does on behalf of children, a lot more can’t be done because there are not enough attorneys, Wolf says. Staff attorneys handle 50 to 65 cases at any given time.
Every year, the project has added one attorney, but because funding is tight, attorneys are being pushed as hard as they can, and they have been up to the task, Wolf says. The program gets money from court fees and grants.
“This is probably the best mix of attorneys we have had since I’ve been here,” Wolf says.
But there is a desperate need for Las Vegas attorneys to take cases on a pro bono basis, she says. There are 186 attorneys handling 253 cases, Wolf says.
That is especially important when judges see cases before them and ask that an attorney represent the child, Wolf says. That is true when parental rights are being terminated.
If judges think it’s important for the children to have an attorney, one will be appointed, Wolf says.
Staff attorneys handle the most difficult cases, but even if attorneys have no experience in family law cases, the project is happy to have lawyers volunteer and be trained, Wolf says.
“We have had people who have never represented children before,” Wolf says. “They may be a personal injury or a real estate lawyers. We get them from every discipline.”
A three-hour training session is scheduled for Oct. 27, and lawyers will be assigned a case that day and will be guided through the process, she says.
Attorneys sometimes are the most consistent force that these children have in their lives, Wolf says. They may have 14 caseworkers and stay in many foster homes, she says.
“The vast majority of people that take pro bono cases have come away feeling really good,” Wolf says. “It is one of those things you give from your heart and see how it can make a difference and change the child’s life whether it is getting them off medication, or helping them get a scholarship or keeping them with their brothers and sisters. You come away with a feeling that you have done something that matters. All of the attorneys who have taken a child abuse case say it is something they never forget.”
Attorneys interested in volunteering can contact the project at 386-1070, ext. 137.
Brian Wargo covers real estate and law for In Business Las Vegas and its sister publication, the Las Vegas Sun. He can be reached at 259-4011 or at [email protected]