Children Need Lawyers

J. MICHAEL McWILLIAMS

August 11, 1993|By J. MICHAEL McWILLIAMS

The report of the first White House Conference on Children proclaimed in 1909 that the best way to preserve high standards of citizenship and a productive economy is to ensure each child ''humane treatment, adequate care and proper education.''

Eighty-four years later, we live in a society that is failing to protect its children and all but abandons them in crisis. A society in which the legal rights of children are abused or ignored.

A society in which potentially useful laws exist but are not enforced; with existing laws that interfere with children's well-being; and a society in which children and their families too frequently end up enmeshed in the overburdened judicial system or as wards of the state.

Early this year I appointed a working group of the American Bar Association to examine children's legal needs, to determine whether those needs are being adequately met and to propose an agenda for action.

The report of the working group has just been issued. Its tale of tragedy is alarming. Its recommendations need our urgent attention.

Federal and state legislation must be made more child and family focused. Right now, for example, Congress has before it a proposed Family Preservation and Support Act. If enacted, it will represent the most significant federal reforms for abused and neglected children in more than a decade.

It will strengthen programs to prevent abuse and neglect, reform the handling of foster care cases in the courts, help states to expand programs for families in crisis and enhance accountability for providing effective services for vulnerable children and families.

This is a vital first step.

But simply changing the law is not enough. Thousands of children every year are involved in legal proceedings on issues that are pivotal to their futures. In many, perhaps most, of those cases the children go unrepresented and unheard, virtually from the beginning to the end of their cases.

Lawyers must give children the same level of zealous advocacy they now deliver to their adult and corporate clients. Where necessary, that should include seeking vigorous enforcement of laws and regulations already on the books.

More often the need is more personal. Children, like their elders, need help in solving problems before they become enmeshed in the courts -- help in finding and accessing needed services and in cutting through bureaucratic red tape.

Where cases do reach the courts, it has long been the position of the ABA that children should have competent counsel representing their interests in all significant judicial proceedings that affect their lives. Sadly, this is a principle yet to be generally realized in American jurisprudence.

Where children have a clear constitutional or statutory right to counsel, the government must not only provide such counsel, it must ensure appropriately trained counsel. That seldom happens.

But there are also many situations where children do not have a constitutional or statutory right to counsel, but have significant interests at stake and where legal representation is essential.

In such cases, the private bar must take the responsibility for ensuring that children are well represented, and arrange for lawyers to provide free services to low-income children.

Our failure to assure justice for all children is endangering our nation's future. We can no longer afford to stand idly by while our children move unassisted from crisis to crisis. Children who do not grow up strong and prepared to be self-sufficient will never be able to participate fully in either our economy or our democracy.

We know the problems, we have the resources and we know at least some of the solutions. If we also have the will, we can make hTC great strides toward protecting children from risks to which our current legal and social structures expose them.

I ask the lawyers of this country and adult Americans to join the American Bar Association as its undertakes this critical task.

J. Michael McWilliams, a partner at Tydings & Rosenberg of Baltimore, is president of the American Bar Association.

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