RALEIGH, N.C. – When cases involving divorce, adoption disputes and domestic violence make their way to the courts, children can find themselves caught in the middle of a frightening battle.
Though they are often the most vulnerable participants in trials, the legal system tends to put children’s needs and concerns on the back burner, says Stephen Raburn, executive director of Raleigh-based nonprofit The Child’s Advocate.
“Most times the parents have an attorney representing them, but not the kids,” Raburn says.
The Child’s Advocate, still in its planning phase, aims to provide children with free legal representation that takes their opinions and feelings into account, Raburn says.
When the organization launches operations in the next few months, it plans to offer pro-bono legal services to minors age 18 and under in the Wake County court system.
The organization plans to take referrals from judges, social workers, therapists and local schools.
“We’re anticipating serving between 100 and 300 children a year when this is operational,” Raburn says.
Though North Carolina provides “best-interest attorneys” for children involved in court cases, those attorneys often make recommendations based on their assumptions about the children’s needs, rather than careful assessments, says Raburn.
“The attorney will present what they believe is in the child’s best interest, but it may not be what the child wants,” Raburn says. “We don’t consider that adequate legal representation.”
To determine what is in children’s best interest, The Child’s Advocate will train attorneys and mental-health professionals to interview children and gather relevant information.
Even if the judge determines the child’s opinions are not relevant to the case, Raburn says, it is important to ensure that the child’s viewpoint is taken into account.
As the organization’s only full-time staff member, Raburn plans to hire a full-time in-house attorney with a specialization in family law or social work.
The nonprofit already has received a jump-start in the form of a $30,000 grant from Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts, or IOLTA, a public-service program that supports legal aid and education.
Raburn’s goal is to raise an additional $250,000 this year.
Because the economic downturn is putting the pinch on major donors, Raburn says, he is leaving no stone unturned in his search for funding.
He says he has high hopes for generosity in the community.
“If they’re philanthropic in nature,” he says, “I think they’re sympathetic to the plight of those who don’t have much.”
Raburn also is trying to recruit new members for the organization’s eight-member board.
Sally Scherer, a retired Raleigh attorney and current board member, developed the idea for The Child’s Advocate after serving nearly 30 years in the legal system.
About eight years ago, she watched as a five-year-old girl was removed from her home and placed with a father she barely knew, Scherer says.
“It becomes about money, revenge, cutting down on child support,” she says. “It has become a battleground between parents as opposed to focusing on the child.”
The services that The Child’s Advocate aims to provide are becoming even more vital as the economic crisis makes it harder for people to afford their own legal representation, Scherer says.
“It’s so expensive to have your own attorney, and more and more people can’t afford it,” she says. “The kids get lost in the shuffle.”
The Child’s Advocate has been housed in Scherer’s law office since it received its 501(c)3 status in late 2007.
Within the next few months, the organization plans to move to nearby Legal Aid of North Carolina, a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services for low-income clients.
The eventual goal is to expand services throughout North Carolina, and provide a model for other nonprofits interested in serving the legal needs of children, Raburn says.
Raburn worked for the Durham Volunteer Center for over two years, but joined The Children’s Advocate in January 2009 to return to his “roots” in child psychology.
He says he believes The Child’s Advocate could give children the power to influence decisions that will impact the rest of their lives.
And Raburn has another reason to feel strongly about the initiative.
“I believe my six-year-old daughter has viable opinions about things,” he says. “If she were in a court situation, I would hope her voice would be heard.”