Nation & World

The rights of children are focus of Bar Association conference at HLS

7 min read

In the United States, a child is born into poverty every 36 seconds. Every six hours, an American child dies of neglect or abuse. And every year, the number of children in abuse investigations could populate a city the size of Detroit.

Against the background of these grim realities, Harvard Law School (HLS) last week (April 13-15) hosted the American Bar Association’s 12th annual conference on children and the law. With nearly 600 registrants — lawyers, judges, social workers, physicians, and child advocates — it was the largest such national meeting ever held.

“We have a virtual Who’s Who of the child welfare world here,” said HLS Dean Elena Kagan in her opening remarks April 13 in Austin Hall’s Ames Courtroom.

For three days, Harvard had on hand an ad hoc faculty of 107 child advocacy specialists. They took part in 34 intensive workshops, and explored topics ranging from racial issues in child welfare and medical-legal partnerships to runaway youth, parental substance abuse, and “court-involved” infants and toddlers.

Every day, there was also a keynote address or a keynote panel.

Organizers of the event were from HLS’s Child Advocacy Program, which at two years old is a new addition to legal training at Harvard, but is already “one of our crown jewels,” said Kagan.

“We sensed there was a huge unmet need out there,” said the program’s founder and faculty director, Elizabeth Bartholet J.D. ’65, a 33-year teaching veteran at HLS. “I thought it important that more schools be doing more.”

The problems confronting abused and neglected children are big. Trying to do anything about them “is like nipping at the leg of an elephant,” said American Bar Association president Karen J. Mathis, who made welcoming remarks on the first day of the conference. Especially troubling are neglected children ages 13 to 19, she said, “who have broader, deeper, wider issues than ever.”

The voices of troubled children are often disregarded by the court and social services systems established to help them — and they deserve to be heard, said Judith S. Kaye, chief judge of the Court of Appeals, State of New York, who delivered the first keynote address.

“We must hear these voices, we must know them,” said Kaye, a nationally known child advocacy jurist, who was introduced by Harry Spence J.D. ’74, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services. “We must step up to be their champions. It’s not just their future, it’s ours too.”

In the meantime, said Kaye, the present is cruel, with 126,000 American children awaiting adoption and more than 500,000 in foster care — half of them over 10.

And the present shapes the future, she added. Within four years of “aging out” of foster care, 80 percent of those children will be parents themselves — half of them unemployed and a third of them on public assistance.

“Everyone wants to change this grim picture,” said Kaye. She issued a “call to action” that included more collaboration across the disciplines that intersect with the child welfare system — law, medicine, and the social sciences.

Kaye also called on lawyers to step up their pro bono work in child advocacy. She recalled her own “wasted youth” — 21 years in corporate law — “when I could have enriched my life and my law practice by doing good for children.”

There’s hope, said Kaye — remarking that this year is the 40th anniversary of In re Gault, a landmark 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision that gave children the same rights of due process that adults have. It was the product of just one impassioned advocate, Amelia Lewis, and it forced states to build in new legal protections for the young.

Voices during the conference shifted from those who felt hope, to those fixed on grim reality.

Adding to data on the latter side was psychiatrist and federal official H. Westley Clark J.D. ’81, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. During a lunchtime keynote address April 14 in Pound Hall, he recounted that up to 80 percent of child welfare cases in some way involve drug or alcohol abuse. At risk are the 8.3 million U.S. children who live with a parent who abuses alcohol or drugs.

The risk plays out in the foster care system. Clark said 680,000 American children now ages 12 to 17 have been in foster care at one time or another — and that they’re a third more likely to abuse drugs than children untouched by the foster care system.

Has there been progress in child welfare since the 1960s, when In re Gault revolutionized the legal landscape?

Stanford law professor Michael Wald allowed there were “real pockets of excellence,” but warned that representation for most abused and neglected children is still “woefully lacking.”

In the 1960s, an annual caseload of 100,000 would be typical, he said in an April 15 final conference panel. But today, 5.6 million cases are referred to agencies and courts every year: 8 percent of all U.S. children.

Only 1 percent of cases are substantiated, but as many as 15 percent are substantiated over time, said Wald — and all the cases, by the act of referral alone, “lead to trauma.”

Rates of abuse in high-poverty counties are three times the national average, and involve “heavily, heavily” large numbers of children 1 year old or younger, he said. “We can predict a child’s life by the ZIP code.”

Emerging from this population are youngsters with significant emotional, cognitive, and social deficits, said Wald — and the system misses many more. Fewer than 40 percent of abused children get the help they need, he said.

Meanwhile, prevention efforts are lagging; billions of dollars in social research “have not produced a lot of knowledge”; legislation is weak; and litigation does not work, with court cases often dragging on for years while children are in limbo, said Wald.

Not just welfare agencies and the courts are failing children, he said. So are schools and systems for juvenile health, job training, and mental health. “Child protective advocates have to become part of a larger social movement” of the kind that has coalesced around the environment, special education, and gay rights, said Wald, “pushing daily, daily, daily (to save) the worst-treated.”

Change is possible, said Olivia Golden, director of operations for New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and a former child welfare official in the Clinton administration. Better data gathering will help, she said. So will better mental health and substance abuse services and early intervention programs like Head Start.

April 15 panelist Martha Grace, chief justice of Juvenile Court in Boston, suggested starting childhood education and social services at age 20 months. “We don’t have the services now” needed to care for abused youngsters, she said. Legislators are not committed to child welfare and society is not addressing the related issues of homelessness, poverty, or unemployment.

In the meantime, courts are the place these issues are dealt with — leaving lawyers and judges to unwillingly watch over a court system that is “a farm [team] for adult prisons.” (U.S. prisons house 2 million inmates, 10 times the number of other developed nations.)

But in the face of these grim facts, Grace expressed some optimism, since she has lived long enough to see cultural attitudes change about domestic violence, smoking, and drunk driving. All are taken seriously now by courts and by society, and perhaps the hidden world of child abuse and neglect will soon gain a similar social legitimacy.

Grace repeated what had been a leitmotif throughout the conference: It’s up to the next generation of child advocates to keep nipping at the elephant’s leg. Of older experts, she said, “We’re not going to be here forever, those of us who have been here forever.”