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October 19, 2018

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No foster child will be forgotten: A state mandate means all kids in the system will have attorneys on their side

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L.E. Baskow

Elliot Brittain, a (now) 22-year-old who received a lawyer through the Children’s Attorneys Project, takes a little time at the Rainbow Family Park on Tuesday, September 12, 2017.

When Elliot Brittain was 17, the two people who’d been raising him — his grandparents — both died unexpectedly, and he found himself immersed in the Clark County foster care system.

He was called to family court for a hearing to determine whether his mother, who had relinquished custody of him when he was 5, or his father, whom he had never met and knew only by name, were willing and able to take care of him.

“I was not prepared for these circumstances,” said Brittain, now 22. “Although I was almost considered an adult, I was unprepared to begin my life.”

Fortunately, he was not alone.

Through the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada’s Children’s Attorneys Project, Brittain was assigned a lawyer to help him navigate the legal process and protect his interests.

“He represented me and walked me through every step of the process,” Brittain said, “everything from taking your shoes off at the scanner (when entering the courthouse) to what was expected of me. He made the language plain. He represented my wishes.”

Brittain described that lawyer as a mentor who helped him become the man he is today — a UNLV student who strives to someday work with people suffering from mental illness and substance abuse issues. As a member of the nonprofit’s youth advisory panel, Brittain also is adamant that all children deserve the same legal representation and assistance he received.

The state of Nevada agrees. During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 305, which requires courts to appoint an attorney to represent children during civil cases involving abuse or neglect and the termination of parental rights. The bill also allows counties to increase recorder fees by $3 to help fund such lawyers.

Clark County Commissioners are taking advantage of the funding mechanism. Recorder fees for most real estate-related documents (deeds and foreclosures, for example) already funnel $3 to the Children’s Attorneys Project, and the commission unanimously voted Sept. 5 to raise that by $2 starting Oct. 1. The change is expected to bring in an additional $1.4 million for the program.

Some of those dollars will offset what is expected to be a halving of the appropriation given from the county’s general fund budget next year, says Legal Aid Center Executive Director Barbara Buckley, a former assemblywoman. This fiscal year, the county provided $680,000 to the nonprofit for all of its services, which also include domestic violence, consumer rights and other common legal issues.

Commissioners noted that the funding change provides the county with some wiggle room if more lawyers are needed than currently anticipated. The Children’s Attorneys Project has a staff of 20 as well as 300 volunteer attorneys, most of whom specialize in fields other than family court but are trained and supported by the Legal Aid Center. It represents 85 percent of the kids within the county foster care system, approximately 3,000. And increased funding is expected to bring independent counsel to the remaining 15 percent.

“Having an attorney means your case isn’t forgotten, that you are not forgotten,” Buckley said. “If anyone deserves that, it’s these kids.”

“This is the highest priority,” said Commissioner Jim Gibson, an attorney. “The difficulty is there will always be constraints on government. We need to step up. This is a time when we can.”

Sometimes lawyers just need to thoughtfully explain the legal process to a child. Other times, they must fight against adults who are knowingly acting against the child’s best interests.

Buckley cited a recent case in which a victim of sexual abuse was denied counseling by her mother because the mother did not want her to testify against the alleged abuser — her stepdad. The child’s lawyer went to court to force the mother to take her daughter to a mental health provider.

In another case, a teenager fought plans that would have uprooted her from her neighborhood.

“She said, ‘High school and ROTC are the only things I have,’ ” Buckley recalls. “So we insisted. ... She was able to stay nearby. She felt empowered. She was able to hold onto something that she really needed.”

Such positive outcomes would have been far less likely a few decades ago. Nevada is the 41st state to mandate lawyers for children in foster care.

“Thirty years ago, kids weren’t seen as having rights,” said Buckley, who founded the Children’s Attorneys Project in 1999 at the request of the county. “Before this project, sometimes children were an afterthought. … People sometimes say, ‘How do the kids know what they want?’ They are incredibly smart and resilient. They are the ones living this life. They know. And they want to be heard.”

Not feeling heard was a familiar issue for Stephanie.

The 15-year-old graphic design student at Advanced Technologies Academy said she grew up dealing with case workers who never seemed to care about what was best for her. “Nobody asked me what I wanted,” she said.

So, when she was appointed a lawyer through the Children’s Attorneys Project, she expected more of the same. Instead, the lawyer fought for what Stephanie wanted, which was to remain under the care of her grandmother and not be forced to return to the mother who had years earlier left her with a stranger and then forgotten where the stranger lived.

“It was weird to be around (my lawyer),” Stephanie said. “I’d never had anyone stand up and fight for my rights before.”

Stephanie won. Legal guardianship was granted to her grandmother.

“It was my 14th birthday,” she said. “I was so surprised. It was the best birthday present ever, a gift that will stay with me forever.”

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