Giving state's children a shot at success

Susan Leviton: She has battled in the courts and in the State House for the well-being of troubled kids.

Champion Of Hope

September 02, 2001

WHY IS IT, Susan P. Leviton wonders, that America gives the least to kids who need the most?

The question has tugged at her conscience for decades. And it has motivated the 53-year-old Baltimore native to go to bat for children who often have no one on their side.

In the last quarter-century, she has been the most effective Maryland voice for children in need.

Her insistent advocacy led to the closing of the abusive Montrose School for nonviolent delinquents, an improved state foster-care system and a shift of state aid to programs that help abused and troubled kids at an earlier stage.

Her years of dogged courtroom advocacy finally led to major steps aimed at fixing Baltimore's woeful and frequently abused special-education program.

And her organizing talents created Advocates for Children and Youth, a broad-based group that has led the charge in the announced closing of another failed youth facility, Cheltenham. ACY also succeeded in getting the governor to shut down scandal-plagued boot camps for juveniles.

She is a champion of our children, one of the state's most precious resources. And without her, this would be a much bleaker place for many young people to grow up.

Back in 1975, Susan Leviton was a young Legal Aid lawyer seeking, among other things, better treatment for people in state-run mental-health institutions.

That's when her alma mater, the University of Maryland School of Law, asked her to set up a legal clinic for handicapped kids - most of them institutionalized - who hadn't been given the special-education training they deserved.

She has been at the law school ever since, in its highly regarded clinical-law program, fighting for the welfare of kids.

It wasn't long before Ms. Leviton was lobbying political leaders and frequently testifying before legislative committees in Annapolis on children's issues.

The problem, as she saw it, was that there were few good programs for the neediest children, and even those were hard to find.

Government was taking a scatter-shot approach. No one seemed to be looking at the big picture on behalf of kids.

While waiting one long afternoon in Annapolis for a child-abuse hearing to begin, Ms. Leviton chatted with a colleague about starting an organization to fill that void - to speak up for kids on a broad range of children's issues.

Out of this conversation came an idea that convinced Robert C. Embry Jr. of the Abell Foundation to give Ms. Leviton $35,000 to start Advocates for Children and Youth. The Strauss Foundation chipped in some more money.

Ms. Leviton's one-person organization was off and running.

Today, ACY is 15 years old, with a staff of 20 and an annual budget of $1.7 million.

Throughout its existence, Ms. Leviton has provided the inspiration and the high-octane energy for ACY. She is a relentless fighter for children's rights and a relentless fund-raiser.

One longtime colleague called her "a force unto herself" with "remarkable staying power" and considerable influence with elected leaders.

Sandra J. Skolnik, executive director for the Maryland Committee for Children, called Ms. Leviton a catalyst on broad children's issues, especially in the juvenile justice arena. "She is a wonderful advocate" and a never-give-up gadfly for her cause, said Ms. Skolnik.

Recently, Walter Sondheim, the dean of Baltimore's civic and public activists, lunched with Ms. Leviton, and summed up why she's so effective: "You have a way of saying the nastiest things with a smile - and getting away with it."

Ms. Leviton looks at her talents differently. She has learned the hard way that "it takes a lot longer than you ever thought" to get results. "Now, I look at issues and come up with creative solutions," she said. "When you bring solutions to people they are more receptive."

She has also learned "to follow the money." Government officials "talk all the time about helping kids in the community, but unless you identify a funding source for them, nothing happens."

So she's putting her efforts into seeking maximum federal funds for children's causes as the best solution.

"There will always be kids growing up in terrible situations, kids who no one wants or whose parents aren't caring for them," she said. "And the state will never be a good parent."

That's why groups like Advocates for Children and Youth are so important, she says. And that's why, after decades in the trenches, Ms. Leviton is still very much involved.

Last year, the Otterbein resident (she and her husband, Jeffrey Laurens, were among the city's first urban homesteaders in 1976) took on a new challenge: running UM's clinical law program as its interim director.

She gained rave reviews from colleagues, but says she is happy returning to full-time teaching and children's advocacy. "Managing law professionals," she quipped, "is like herding cats, especially clinicians whose role in life is to question authority."

Looking back over her career, Ms. Leviton still can't figure out why American society hasn't given the welfare of children a higher priority. To her, it's so obvious.

"What bothers me the most is why we think kids from deprived backgrounds should go to the most deprived schools," she said.

"I truly believe education is the route out of poverty, that it will give them a fair chance at making it."

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