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Law center backs kids

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Fifteen years ago, Charlotte lawyer Katie Holliday helped form The Children’s Law Center to fill what organizers saw as a gap in providing coordinated and specialized legal representation for youngsters.

Today, fielding 12 lawyers and support staff, plus 200 volunteers, the nonprofit group serves 2,000 children a year.

But the organization, with six executive directors or interim executives since Holliday resigned in 1997 to join a private law firm, also faces challenges.

“We really skate close to the edge,” says Bill Underwood, who joined the center as executive director July 1 after a career in private law practice. “There’s so much more that needs to be done and we just can’t do more than we do on the budget that we’ve got.”

The center, which in March will be one of nine agencies moving into the new Children & Family Services Center uptown, acts as a legal advocate for children in Mecklenburg and nearby counties.

Three full-time lawyers and a paralegal handle more than 1,000 cases a year representing minor delinquents in a state-funded program that accounts for 45 percent of the center’s $590,000 annual budget.

Another lawyer and part-time lawyer represent children as court-appointed “guardian ad litem” advocates in custody disputes, and a new volunteer coordinator will work with roughly 140 pro-bono lawyers and 60 other volunteers who help with research, interviews, court appearances and other tasks.

The custody program, with a budget of $162,000, is funded through sliding fees, private contributions, United Way dollars and a grant by the N.C. State Bar from interest earned on lawyers’ trust accounts.

Yet another staff lawyer represents children at court hearings required by state law in cases involving institutionalization for mental treatment. That program, funded through a state contract, costs $47,000 a year.

The center’s fourth program, costing $105,000 and involving a full-time lawyer and part-time administrative assistant, represents students at school hearings on permanent expulsion, and in cases in which children with exceptional needs may not be receiving an appropriate education.

Staffed by a full-time lawyer and part-time administrative assistant, that program has a pending suit against the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools on behalf of four autistic children who receive therapy at home and claim the schools do not provide the programs they need.

Underwood says he hopes to add a fifth program — representing abused and neglected children — that was begun by the center in the 1980s and now is run by the state.

Adding that program could help the center provide one-stop coordination of children’s services among a broad range of state and local agencies, Underwood says. It also could justify a bigger budget and staff, he says, and offer a strong case to donors to support the center’s needs for technology and fundraising staff.

“We would be providing, from beginning to end, the whole spectrum of services that kids need in court until they do become adults,” Underwood says.

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