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Representing kids

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A small nonprofit law firm that provides legal representation for children who need it aims to expand its staff to better serve its young clients.

Only three of the firm’s six-and-a-half lawyers represent over 1,700 children a year in a state-funded delinquency program, for example, making it tough “to guarantee to a kid the representation that he or she needs,” says Bill Underwood, executive director of the Children’s Law Center.

The center, with an annual budget of $850,000, counts on support from the state, a statewide lawyers trust fund, foundation grants, United Way of Central Carolinas, individual and board contributions, and fees charged to parents on a sliding scale.

Another key source of support is “Spring for Kids,” a benefit that is part of the Southern Spring Home & Garden Show and will be held March 1 at the Charlotte Merchandise Mart.

The event aims to raise $200,000, up from $150,000 last year, the first of five years in which proceeds will benefit the center.

“Last year’s benefit made a huge difference in our ability to stabilize our staff and to begin to negotiate with funders,” Underwood says.

Including the state-funded delinquency program, the 18-year-old center represents roughly 3,000 children a year on matters that include custody disputes, hearings on institutionalization for mental treatment, hearings on permanent expulsion from school, and questions about whether children with special needs are getting appropriate education.

The county caseload for juvenile petitions alleging delinquency by children up to age 16 underscores the challenges the center faces, Underwood says.

Mecklenburg County accounts for roughly one of every 10 juvenile petitions filed in North Carolina, he says, and the incidence of those petitions in the county is half again that of any other county.

“We are very significant in how delinquency representation is practiced in North Carolina,” he says.

With one more lawyer and access to an investigator, the center’s juvenile-petition staff could begin to work in teams, creating a model for other counties, Underwood says.

While petitions often require preparation, he says, the program’s lawyers rarely have time to do anything but appear in court.

“We’ve got serious charges, which in adult court would be felonies, and even serious felonies, with lifelong consequences to these kids, and we need more resources,” Underwood says.

The number of custody cases the center handles, sometimes involving contentious disputes in which parents do not consider their children’s needs, has doubled in two years to more than 100, assisted by more than 200 volunteers and lawyers working pro-bono.

And a single center lawyer represents children in over 1,000 mental-illness hearings a year.

Underwood says he increasingly is focusing his time expanding the center’s efforts to make sure children are getting the education they need.

“If a child is not succeeding in school, that’s a big problem for the future of that child, and probably for the whole community,” he says. “This is one of the most difficult issues facing the schools, and I don’t believe it gets the attention it requires.”

The center plans to use the March 1 benefit to increase awareness of its role and needs, and aims over the next four years to build a permanent base of support rooted in the legal community and among groups and individuals with a particular interest in children’s needs.

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