Letter from VLSP
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
- Organization: VLSP
By Tiela Chalmers, VLSP Executive Director
What does pro bono have to do with Britney Spears?
Every day at VLSP, someone tells us that they want to focus their pro bono work on children. “I see that you have projects in family law and housing law,” they say. “But I really want to help children.” Can I represent a family adopting a child through the foster-adopt program, or represent a child in a guardianship proceeding?” Of course you can, and these are important things to do.
But if you really want to help children, guardianship and adoption are not the only places you should be looking because the vast majority of children in poverty face problems that affect the entire family unit, and are not specific to the child’s status.
It is the fundamental fact of childhood that most if not all of the circumstances of a child’s life are determined by the circumstances of the parents. The child is only safely housed if the parents are housed. The child only has enough to eat if the parents have sufficient income to purchase food. If the parent suffers from mental illness, the child too will suffer the consequences. Further, decisions affecting children’s lives are made not by the child, but by their parents or responsible adults. And in all families, rich and poor, some of those decisions are good ones, and some are not so good.
Remember Britney Spears, who lost custody of her children for a while after making some bad decisions about caring for them (decisions that later proved to be linked to mental health issues)? Would you want to represent Britney Spears pro bono in her custody case if she was low-income? What if she was being evicted? Without the allure of her fortune and fame, my guess is her string of bad decisions, her possible mental health issues, and her inability to prioritize her children would lead you to say, “No thanks.” But consider this: the only way to help those two little boys is to help their parents. That’s who they live with, and that’s who is making decisions for them.
In fact, most parents we help through VLSP’s pro bono programs have made pretty good decisions. They might be facing eviction despite having made the best of a series of bad situations. They might be faced with divorce after trying mightily to avoid it. But even where the parents have made bad decisions, the fact remains: Help the parents and you help the children.
How can you prevent children from becoming homeless?
Help defend parents in eviction actions.
How can you ensure that children won’t witness more violence?
Offer representation to their battered mothers.
If what you care about is children, the people you have to represent are parents.
“But wait,” you say. “I don’t have social work training. Nor do I have the time or energy to deal with some difficult parent who will probably refuse any help that’s offered to him.” Because of this, VLSP has social workers on staff to provide support for volunteer attorneys, and to help get clients the social services they need. And in the end, you have more human skills than you probably realize. Being a lawyer is partly about knowing the law and the procedures, but it is also about being a problem-solver. Above all, you need to be empowered on behalf of the family for whom you are an advocate. And while the parents might be your client, you can make the most difference for the children by advocating for the whole family.
Virtually every parent I’ve ever met, even the ones that have made bad decisions, care about their children. They want and need to hear your recommendations about what those children need. That’s why you can make such a big difference in these cases.
Help a child. Represent a parent.