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Changing Children's Lives

Monday, August 04, 2003

  • Organization: Bar Association of San Francisco

The Bar Association of San Francisco has made children a core priority through its various programs of advocacy, mentoring, and community involvement. BASF volunteers give time, expertise, and hope to the children of San Francisco.

Day In Court: Bringing the Court to the Classroom

Eviction Prevention Project: One Lawyer's Fight Against Toxic Mold

Family Law Project: Delivering Family

SSI for Children with Disabilities Project: Allen's Fight

School-To-College: Confessions of a Mentor



Day In Court: Bringing the Court to the Classroom
Kevin "Casey" Christensen

Here's a riddle: What has 120 legs, is three-to-five feet tall, and periodically roams the San Francisco civil trial courts in search of both serious learning and light-hearted laughs? The answer is one of the Barristers Club's greatest outreach successes-court tours for middle school students organized through the Barristers Day in Court Committee.

The program was conceived during a visit to Portland, Oregon, several years ago by one San Francisco lawyer. Steve Murphy, a solo practitioner and the founder of the Day in Court project, noticed several school-age children wandering the court's hallowed halls. The Oregon project is (or at least was) a fully staffed, court-funded outreach program through which docents offered students guided tours of the courthouse and all of its wonders-plaintiffs, defendants, judges, jurors, clerks, and lawyers.

Mr. Murphy is not just a lawyer, he is also a father-and he knew a good idea when he saw one. He returned to California determined to give his kids, their classmates, and numerous other San Francisco students a similar opportunity. In 1999, though, as now, the San Francisco courts were sufficiently busy managing the flow of cases and couldn't handle a regular flow of student observers, as well. And, as energetic as Mr. Murphy is, he couldn't do it himself.

Enter the Barristers. As a former Barristers board member, Mr. Murphy knew the Barristers-BASF members in their first ten years of practice-had the personnel, knowledge, and enthusiasm to tackle the project. The Barristers quickly got on board, and the Day in Court project was born. In September 1999, the Barristers presented the first of six weekly tours to a group of seventh- and eighth-graders, to rave reviews. Since then, Barristers tour guides have directed some 50 court tours for more than 300 students. More impressive, this immense, and continuing, effort has been done at almost no cost to the Bar Association of San Francisco or the court-and is absolutely free to the schools.

As the judges and other courthouse regulars will attest, the Day in Court tours are far more than simply a semi-controlled avalanche of youths into the courthouse. The tours are also more than a brainless half-day out of school for the kids. The program is designed to integrate with the students' civics lessons in a novel way. That the kids don't necessarily recognize that fact until the learning has been done is one of the central elements of the tours' success.

In fact, much more learning happens before the students even arrive. Weeks before the scheduled tours, the Barristers Club provides written materials for teachers to cover in class. The materials, prepared by the Barristers in conjunction with the court, contain a description of the history and workings of the courts, a glossary of courtroom jargon, a diagram of the courtroom and the functions of its principal players, and more. By design, these materials fit nicely into the students' regular civics and government curriculum.

The children's academic studies come to life on the day of the tour-as do most, if not all, of the students. The day starts with up to eighty twelve- and thirteen-year-old students gathering in the judges' conference room on the sixth floor of the downtown civil courthouse for a brief orientation. Then, Barristers tour guides cover the basics of what the students will see during the day: differences between civil and criminal cases, how a lawsuit gets started, what happens as it moves slowly forward to trial, and why each of the involved people-parties, judge, jury, and lawyers-do what they do when it gets into the courtroom.

The kids hear straight from the, uh, horse's mouth, too. The presiding judge, or her delegate, usually gives a short talk on government, court life, law school, trial practice, and anything else on the students' minds. (The subject of judicial salaries, in particular, rarely goes unquestioned.)

The speeches, though interesting, are kept to a minimum, to make the most of the centerpiece of the program: in-person observation of cases being tried in the courtrooms. For approximately two and a half hours, the students and their chaperones watch actual civil trials in progress in the various departments of the court. Students see jury selection, argument, testimony, and sometimes even delivery of a verdict. The court staff and lawyers are alerted to the students' visits, and frequently offer further explanations of the proceedings.

Finally, the students reconvene for an Oprah-style open-forum question-and-answer session moderated by the Barristers tour guides to discuss the children's observations, experiences, and insights, and to answer their inquiries.

The Day in Court program has been overwhelmingly well-received. The students enter the tour quiet and listless, just like many of us in the morning, but leave energized and animated. Many express an interest in a legal career-more as a judge than a lawyer, it must be said.

Teachers have unanimously praised the program for its engaging approach to teaching about the operations of government. Most leave insisting to return with another group of students, and many do just that. In the Day in Court program's four-year run, a few of the schools have kept perfect attendance, bringing a new group through each year.

The judges and court staff also appreciate the chance to interact with the students. To the extent possible, most judges will briefly halt proceedings when a group of students enters the courtroom, to explain what is happening and why. Many permit students to ask questions of the court or lawyers (at appropriate times, of course), to sit in the jury box or on the bench, and even to come into chambers for an informal chat.

Barristers tour guides also applaud the opportunities the Day in Court program provides them-whether it be the prospect of observing some courtroom action themselves, the ability to interact with the judges and court staff (in a way more meaningful than a ten-minute motion appearance), or simply the chance to give a little back to the community.

The tours, which are offered each spring and fall, have been virtually sold out for the entire life of the program. With previous participant schools looking forward to return trips and new schools clamoring for entry into the program, it appears that Day in Court is well-placed to continue, and grow, in the years to come.

Mr. Murphy, among many others, is pleased and proud to see his brainchild moving along on its own. Last year he relinquished the program chairmanship (if perhaps not all of his tour-guide duties) to Jesse Ralph, another San Francisco Barrister and solo practitioner. Mr. Ralph has not only kept the program running strong, he has worked to improve and expand it. The ABA's Young Lawyers Division has recognized the program as one of only a few such outreach programs to receive financial assistance. Students, teachers, judges, and tour guides continue to sing its praises.

The Day in Court program leaders and the Barristers Club hope and expect to see this important program grow and prosper-just like the students it serves. And who knows, in a few years, given proper care, feeding, and nurturing, there just may be many more of those multi-legged creatures churning, and learning, through the court.

For more information on the Barristers Club Day in Court program, please contact Jesse Ralph at (415) 776-1826 or sec58@earthlink.net.

Kevin M. (Casey) Christensen is a shareholder of Bullivant Houser Bailey in San Francisco and has been a regular Day in Court tour guide since the program's inception. He expects to regret the "horse's mouth" comment in his next appearance in Department 206. He can be reached at Casey.Christensen@bullivant.com.



Eviction Prevention Project: One Lawyer's Fight Against Toxic Mold
Amanda Chavez

When Nancy Tablin met attorney Eric Lifschitz last year, she had no idea just how dramatically her life would change. Ms. Tablin was a hard-working Filipino immigrant struggling to provide for her elderly mother and eleven-year-old son. Mr. Lifschitz was a first-year associate who had recently decided to forgo a career as a chemical-patent attorney to pursue his own private practice. Now, almost a year later, Ms. Tablin and Mr. Lifschitz are preparing for a mediation to settle Ms. Tablin's claims of wrongful eviction and personal injury due to prolonged exposure to toxic molds.

It all started with a 500-square-foot in-law unit built in the back of a garage near Hunter's Point-the place Ms. Tablin and her family called home. The front of the garage reeked of urine and garbage because of a long-standing sewage leak, and migrant workers were permitted to loiter and sleep on mattresses strewn about the garage floor. This scene greeted the Tablin family every time they approached the front door of their home and served as a constant source of stress.

Every evening when Ms. Tablin left for her job on the night shift as a reservation agent, she was gripped with fear for the safety of her mother and son. Furthermore, their unit did not have a phone, so her family could not contact her in the case of an emergency. Ms. Tablin's concern for her family's welfare was so overwhelming that on many occasions she used her work break as an opportunity to return home and check on them. One night, as Ms. Tablin rushed home to do this, she forgot to clock out for her break. The next day Ms. Tablin was notified that she had been fired.

But the potential harm Ms. Tablin and her family faced wasn't just in their neighborhood-it was right inside their own home. Due to the landlord's refusal to make repairs and remediation, the unit had become overrun with toxic molds. Ms. Tablin's son was starting to suffer from asthma attacks, nosebleeds, headaches, and fatigue, all caused by prolonged exposure to the toxic chemicals produced by the molds.

The combination of health and safety issues created by her family's living conditions compelled Ms. Tablin to seek better housing. However, because of her limited resources and recent unemployment, Ms. Tablin could not afford to move her family into a new place, so they dealt with their deplorable conditions as best as they could. In an effort to improve their living conditions, she asked her landlord for money to make desperately needed repairs, including a paint job to cover the mold on the bathroom walls. The landlord told Ms. Tablin that the money she spent on the necessary repairs would be deducted from the amount she owed for rent, but this never happened. Soon afterward, the property was foreclosed, and the bank, serving as the new landlord, immediately filed papers to evict Ms. Tablin and her family for non-payment of rent.

Without a job, Ms. Tablin had no choice but to fight for her home, regardless of its decrepit state. With the assistance of the Eviction Defense Collaborative, she found her way to the Bar Association's Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP). It was through VLSP's Eviction Prevention Project that Ms. Tablin was introduced to her volunteer attorney, Mr. Lifschitz.

Mr. Lifschitz had only been practicing law for four months when he signed up as a pro bono volunteer with VLSP. Though he says VLSP's training and support gave him the necessary skills and confidence to take on his own landlord/tenant cases, he was caught off guard by his emotional involvement in Ms. Tablin's case.

During his first visit to the Tablin home, Mr. Lifschitz was appalled by her family's living conditions. After giving the apartment just a cursory glance, he was able to see and smell the mold that was flourishing in the apartment.

"As soon as I saw Nancy's living conditions, I knew she and her family were living in a dangerously toxic environment," Mr. Lifschitz states. "My goal was to get them out of the apartment as soon as possible."

Mr. Lifschitz took his case to the bank that had foreclosed on the property. Upon reviewing the evidence, the bank was willing to settle on the condition that Ms. Tablin sign a waiver releasing them from any further claims. Finally an agreement was reached giving the Tablin family forty-five days to move out, a waiver of eight months unpaid back rent, and a five-thousand dollar move-out payment. Mr. Lifschitz accomplished all of this and managed to keep Ms. Tablin from signing the waiver.

With the money from the settlement, Ms. Tablin and her family moved into a safe new home. Meanwhile, Mr. Lifschitz has remained committed to both the case and the Tablin family. He has helped Ms. Tablin's son receive the necessary medical attention and has spent the past nine months building a case against the foreclosing bank. Last month, after filing a lawsuit against the bank, Mr. Lifschitz was able to get the bank to agree to mediation and is hopeful that he can reach a six-figure settlement without the need to formally serve the complaint.

As for Ms. Tablin, she is just thankful to have her family out of their dangerous living environment. "The way we lived was so sad. When I went home I felt desperate, hopeless, and depressed," she says. "But now I can sleep at night."

For more information about the Eviction Prevention Project, please contact Amanda Chavez at (415) 782-8956 or achavez@sfbar.org.

Amanda Chavez is the Director of Volunteer and Holistic Services for the Volunteer Legal Services Program of the Bar Association of San Francisco.



Family Law Project: Delivering Family
Krista Denton

Without the help of San Francisco attorney Justine Meyers Jacob, a young boy might not have the chance to live the American dream as his father hoped when he sent him to a better life over eight thousand miles away.

By the time he was just six years old, Benhur, a United States citizen, had been abandoned by his mother in Thailand and given up by a loving father who could not adequately care for him. Benhur was born in the Northern Marina Islands, a U.S. Territory, to Thai parents and began his life with both parents near Bangkok. After Benhur's mother deserted her family, his father, Anupap, attempted to care for him. But his means were limited, and he soon found he could barely meet his own needs, let alone those of a small boy. Consequently, Benhur's father made the ultimate emotional sacrifice and sent his son to live with another family in the countryside. Anupap had hoped that this family would care for his son as they would their own, but during a visit found the young boy neglected and doing the brunt of the household chores. Desperate to provide a better life for his son, Anupap called his sister, Kanyanut, in the United States and asked her to take in his son.

Kanyanut, Benhur's aunt, was living in San Francisco with her husband of three years, Phiane, and her two young children from a previous marriage. Though undoubtedly a hardship for the family, they didn't think twice about opening their hearts and home to a little boy in need half a world away. It took nearly a year, but permission for Benhur to travel to the U.S. was eventually secured, and Kanyanut and Phiane gladly paid his travel expenses-a fortune for a family whose income falls below the federal poverty guideline.

Benhur arrived at his new home in San Francisco suffering from tuberculosis. He had never seen a doctor or a dentist. He had never attended school. Kanyanut and Phiane immediately enrolled Benhur in school and sought medical treatment for the sick boy. But before Benhur finished one round of antibiotics, the couple ran out of money. As Benhur was in need of additional medical treatment-including dental care for his poorly maintained teeth-Phiane sought free medical services, but he was told only a parent or guardian could obtain these benefits.

Phiane reached out to VLSP for help and was accepted as a pro bono client by attorney Justine Meyers Jacob. Ms. Jacob had been volunteering with VLSP for only a few months when she received the call about Benhur, but after hearing their story she jumped at the opportunity to help. Ms. Jacob knew it required someone with a big heart to fly a child eight thousand miles and foot the subsequent medical bills, and it was apparent to her from their first meeting how kind Phiane was-how he truly wanted the best for Benhur. Each time she met with the family to work on the case, she was greeted with hugs from the children and freshly cut flowers from the family garden. She describes the case as the most satisfying of her career-she helped give a child an opportunity he would not have had if he had remained in Thailand or even continued to live in the United States without a guardian. "It felt really good to help clients who desperately wanted to give care to a child they loved and wanted," she says.

Phiane told VLSP that Ms. Jacob was a great attorney and obtaining the guardianship earlier this year made a big difference in the life of his family. Benhur has blossomed in his new life: He is quickly learning English, has many friends, and is in good health. And Benhur now has something that he's been missing for a longtime-a family. "He is a happy boy and is part of our family for as long as he wants," Phiane reflects lovingly.

For more information about the Family Law Project, please contact Amanda Chavez at (415) 782-8956 or achavez@sfbar.org.

Krista Denton is the supervising attorney of VLSP's Family Law Project. She can be reached at kdenton@sfbar.org.



SSI for Children with Disabilities Project: Allen's Fight
Andrew Shinn

When Allen Briggs was only a few months old, his mother often left him alone with his older twin brothers, who were just two and a half years old. All three boys had been exposed to crack cocaine in utero, and their mother was still addicted and unable to care for them. Their home in Lafayette, Louisiana, was without electricity, and there was hardly any food or diapers for the children.

In the winter of 1995, when Child Protective Services (CPS) was alerted to the children's living conditions, they placed a call to Anastasia Briggs, the boys' grandmother. CPS explained to Ms. Briggs that if she did not come and adopt the children they would be placed in foster care.

At the time, Ms. Briggs was living north of San Francisco with her husband. Although she knew she was under no obligation to raise another set of children this late in her life, Ms. Briggs made her choice easily. She flew to Louisiana and spent most of her savings adopting the boys and moving them to California.

The decision has not been without sacrifice. Ms. Briggs loves the children tremendously, but raising them has been a huge financial cost, and the stress of adding three young children to their household led her husband to leave her shortly after she returned from Louisiana. For the next several years, Ms. Briggs struggled to provide for the children's basic needs. It did not help that all three of the children were developmentally delayed.

To help pay for the children's care, Ms. Briggs was able to apply for and receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for the twins. However when she applied for Allen on the basis of his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), he was denied. Determined, she appealed the decision and requested an administrative hearing.

Having gone this far through the process without representation, Ms. Briggs was frustrated and unsure of her next step. The Edgewood Center for Children and Families referred her to the Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP)'s Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP) and its SSI for Children with Disabilities Project. The supervising attorney of the project, Rose Molloy, immediately placed the case with a volunteer advocate named Jill Kristensen.

A graduate of New College School of Law, Ms. Kristensen was a recent admittee to the bar working part-time with a firm fighting against financial abuse of the elderly. Looking to gain experience in a new area of law, and wanting to use her skills to help those who cannot afford private counsel, she turned to VLSP to do volunteer work.

Remembering her first meeting with Allen, Ms. Kristensen says, "I felt like I knew him already because of everything I had read about him. Allen is a friendly, outgoing, engaging child, who is quickly endearing. The disability of attention deficit disorder is quite severe but his personality is charming."

Allen's case had been denied originally because of a poor consultative examination performed by a doctor hired by the Social Security Administration-the doctor attributed Allen's behavioral problems not to ADHD, but to bad parenting. On appeal, the Social Security Administration ordered another examination and found Allen did indeed have ADHD.

Using this second consultative examination, along with Allen's medical records and school Individualized Education Program reports, Ms. Kristensen wrote a persuasive brief specifying how Allen's ADHD and developmental delay met the listing requirements for SSI for Children with Disabilities benefits. The judge and the medical expert received the brief before the hearing.

Several weeks later, Ms. Kristensen, Ms. Briggs, and Allen were before the judge at the administrative hearing. Nine-year-old Allen was asked a series of questions about his daily activities at home and school. Though the boy was able to answer for himself, Ms. Briggs qualified some of her grandson's answers, explaining that he was unable to complete some of these daily activities without assistance. For instance, Ms. Briggs explained that although Allen is able to dress himself, he can only do so if all his clothes are laid out for him.

Eventually, the medical expert testified that he agreed with the second consultative examination of Allen, which diagnosed him with ADHD. But unfortunately for Allen and Ms. Briggs, the medical examiner also testified that medication might control the severity of Allen's disability. Because of her grandson's exposure to crack cocaine, Ms. Briggs is wary of drugs and very reluctant to give Allen medication. Consequently, the judge denied the claim because he felt that with medication Allen's ADHD would not be severe enough to meet the benefit requirements.

Ms. Brigg's now has a tough decision ahead of her. Social Security's guidelines state a disabled child under age eighteen is not fully responsible for failing to follow prescribed treatment. Therefore, there may be grounds for overturning the judge's decision in a final administrative appeal before the Appeals Council. Unfortunately, an Appeals Council decision takes a minimum of two years, so Ms. Briggs must decide whether to continue to forego benefits pending a decision, or file a new application for benefits.

Regardless of what happens at the Appeals Council or with a new application, Ms. Briggs is grateful for Ms. Kristensen's help and feels she would not have been able to handle the case at the administrative level by herself.

"Jill was very caring, understanding, and professional. She brought out a lot of good points in the case I would have been too nervous to remember. She's very resourceful and went to bat for me in court," Ms. Briggs explains. "We needed support, and we couldn't have done it at all without Jill's help."

Ms. Kristensen has equal admiration for Ms. Briggs. "Anastasia was an inspiration for me to put everything I had into the case," Ms. Kristensen says. "It was nothing for me to volunteer my time when I saw everything she was doing for her boys. I would recommend volunteering for the SSI for Kids Project to any attorney who wants to help out families and children in need."

For more information about the Children's SSI Project, please contact Amanda Chavez at (415) 782-8956 or achavez@sfbar.org.

Andrew Shinn is a Jesuit volunteer with VLSP's Homeless Advocacy Project. He can be reached at ashinn@sfbar.org.

School-To-College: Confessions of a Mentor
David Campos

For nearly a year now, I have been a mentor in BASF's School-to-College Program at Balboa High School. Looking back at my involvement in the program, I have to admit I never expected to get as much out of it as I have. Don't get me wrong-I've always cared about education, and the idea of mentoring a child appealed to me. But as an attorney with a busy schedule and a calendar full of commitments, I was daunted by the prospect of volunteering on a weekly basis. Add to that the trepidation of dealing with high school kids, and I wasn't sure what to expect. After all, it had been years since I last interacted with a high school student, years since I thought about the transition from high school to college, and certainly years since I worried about the college-application process. Notwithstanding all of this, a year later I can honestly say that School-to-College is without a doubt one of the most fulfilling and rewarding aspects of my life. Cliché aside, I really do get more out of the program than I give to it. And based on conversations with fellow mentors, I know I am not alone in feeling this way.

School-to-College is, first and foremost, about the responsibility each one of us has to give something in return for all the blessings we have been given. The fact is none of us got to where we are today completely on our own. Sure we all worked hard, but the truth is that each of us had some help along the way. Whether a family member, a friend, or even a perfect stranger, we can all point to someone whose example motivated us to chase our dreams. With that in mind, School-to-College essentially provides mentors like me with the opportunity to repay those who helped us get where we are by doing the same for someone else. Each time I meet with one of my students, I can't help but think that, not too long ago, it was me in that chair. It was me listening to my government teacher explain why-despite all my doubts-she believed I could not only go to college, but eventually graduate from law school as well. I can't help but think that somewhere in Arizona, where she now lives, that teacher is smiling, knowing I made it this far and I'm following her example by helping someone else do the same. I can't help but think, certainly hope, that some day my students will do the same for another generation of children. It's a cycle that will hopefully repeat itself for years to come.

Another amazing aspect of the School-to-College program is how it transcends generational, cultural, and socioeconomic bounds. Mentors and students may be years apart in age, of different ethnicities or cultures, or have had different opportunities, but whatever the differences-much to my surprise and delight-we find we have a great deal in common. And whether we as mentors were high school students ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, we understand what it means to be in high school and have gone through the college-application process. During the period that we are together, we have a shared goal: get that student into the college of his or her choice. Having had a mentor to advise and counsel me through this process, I know there is nothing more encouraging than the knowledge that there is someone cheering you on, someone willing to put in the time to make sure that you attain a higher education. Just the knowledge that someone cares goes a long way.

As a result of the School-to-College Program, many kids are attending college when they never thought they could. More than that, many of them are going to schools they believed were unattainable. As a mentor there is nothing more gratifying than having your students, beaming with pride, tell you they made it into their dream schools. Words simply cannot describe the weight of that moment or the look in those kids' eyes-the look that says, "Thank you for helping me do what I never thought possible." The more you think about it, the more you realize that it's not just those students' lives that you helped change. You helped their parents fulfill their dream of sending their child to college. You helped set an example for their siblings, who now see college as a tangible option. You may well have set a precedent for their school or neighborhood-from now on, it may not be such a big deal for a kid from Balboa to go to Berkeley, Stanford, or an Ivy League school. That all of this, and much more, can happen because of mentors is what makes School-to-College so remarkable.

For more information about the School-to-College Program, please contact Joan Firestone at (415) 782-8910 or jfirestone@sfbar.org.

David Campos is a San Francisco deputy city attorney.

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