Tuesday, April 2, 2013 | 2 a.m.
It’s a tough but essential question for anyone advocating for Nevada’s foster children: How do you make children aware of their rights and empower them without overwhelming them and causing panic when they have just been taken from their home?
At the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, which actively represents about half of the 3,200 children in Clark County’s foster care system and will provide a lawyer for any foster child who requests one through its children’s attorney project, work on the answer has been under way for at least four years.
Thanks to two Girl Scouts, the Legal Aid Center finally has a book it thinks does the dual job of engaging foster children while still delivering the essential information. The scouts and the center will be honored Tuesday morning by the Clark County Commission.
Four years ago, Legal Aid set out with the goal to provide every foster child in Clark County with a pamphlet summarizing the rights afforded all foster children and explaining some of the most common legal proceedings and situations they will face.
“Being taken from your home is probably the most traumatic thing a child can endure,” said attorney Janice Wolf, head of Legal Aid’s Children’s Attorneys Project, which is expanding as the agency moves into a new building to add more lawyers and represent more children.
“The children have no clue what will happen next, no clue when they will see their family again and no clue who they will stay with or if they will be with their siblings,” she said.
The first drafts of the pamphlet were dense and long, the kind of publication a teenager would rather tear into spit wads than read cover to cover.
But thanks to a connection between Legal Aid and Girls Scouts of Southern Nevada, Wolf found the answer. If teenagers created the pamphlets, the foster children would be more likely to read them.
Robyn Manzini is on the board of directors for both Legal Aid and Girls Scouts of Southern Nevada. Her daughter Sabina is a 16-year-old junior at The Meadows School and started working on the project when she was a ninth-grader.
Manzini lived in the Los Angeles area before moving to Las Vegas, and she was also a scout leader in Southern California. She kept in touch with former troop members, and one with a talent for art, Lauren Nelson, volunteered to work on illustrations for the pamphlet.
Besides earning the girls the recognition of the Clark County Commission, completion of the project also garnered the tag-team of teenagers their Gold Scouts Gold Award, the highest achievement for Girl Scouts.
There are two versions of the booklet, one for younger children and one for more mature kids. The book for the younger set relies more on Nelson’s illustrations while the more advanced book has more detailed information.
Sabina Manzini would go to the Legal Aid Center every Monday, and sometimes on weekends, for several months to work with an intern on the book. They conducted interviews with attorneys, judges and foster children already in the system to get their input.
“The first draft was extremely dense and filled with everything that the kid might need to know,” she said. “We trimmed it down from there to make it easier to read and streamlined. We focused in on the information they needed, like what their rights are, that they can ask for an attorney and the foster kids bill of rights.”
Sabina Manzini said her work on the project had motivated her to pursue a career in law.
Nelson, 17, took on the task of illustrating sensitive subject matter for the younger children’s book, targeted kids from 7 to 12 years old.
In one series of illustrated panels, a child in foster care explains some of the rights all foster children have, such as the right of siblings to be placed together barring extraordinary circumstances. Another cartoon touches on what foster children should do if they have been abused.
“I hadn’t really met foster kids before or learned about the system, and this project really opened my eyes to the situation they are in,” Nelson said. “I didn’t realize how much (foster children) would be bullied in school. I never thought of how other kids would react and think they‘re strange or weird.”
Nelson, who drew the anime-style illustrations on a computer, is a self-taught artist. In the end, Legal Aid staffers liked the illustrations so much they decided to include some of them in the pamphlet for older children, as well.
Both books emphasize that children in foster care have a voice in their future and make it clear the children can request an attorney to help advocate for them.
“We know that foster children who are represented by an attorney early in the process have better outcomes,” Wolf said. “They go home faster, they are adopted faster, they typically are placed on fewer medications and don’t develop as many mental health issues.”
The books cover common questions the children have, such as placement options and what to do if they need to testify in court. Once foster children turn 14, they have a say in whether they want to be adopted. The book for older children has a chart weighing the pros and cons of remaining in foster care versus pursuing adoption.
Wolf said once the pamphlets, which were designed pro bono by R&R Partners, are rolled out after the Tuesday presentation to the County Commission, they will be made available to new foster children through family court, shelters and social workers.
“All of the foster kids we talked to that saw the booklet seemed to be very grateful, and some said: ‘I wish I had this at the beginning,’” Sabina Manzini said. “For me, it feels good to be giving back to community and to have created something that is going out to these kids. It’s been really meaningful to me.”