When children appear before the bench, it is typically because something has broken down. The reasons for the breakdown are complex. Solutions necessary to bring about change are complex as well. There is no single “solution”. It takes a variety of approaches to reach these children and get them the help they need. Add to this the fact that the number of children in need increases each year and the task becomes daunting.
Baltimore City Juvenile Court is no stranger to the complexity of the issues involved with trying to help children in the system. Master Claudette Brown has been involved in working with many different programs that help children in need.
“Before I became a master, I was involved with a program that recruited and trained volunteers from several different bar associations,” says Brown. “A pro bono panel was formed and the attorneys helped the kids get back in school and get them the services they need.” This meant some of the attorneys represented children in Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings and worked in conjunction with the Maryland Disability Law Center. Others worked with the schools and attended suspension meetings or parent/teacher conferences.
“When I became a master,” Brown states, “I was in the Juvenile Division, and we heard child welfare and delinquency cases, some of which were horrific.”
In hearing these cases, Brown discovered what she already knew. “The reasons for the children not being in school were numerous,” she says. “Some had special education needs that were not being met, either because the kids didn’t want to go or they had been put out or their records had gotten lost – a whole number of educational reasons.”
Over the years the Court has been concerned about addressing the educational needs of the children on both the child welfare side and the delinquency side. The Court has worked with many programs through the years and even more recently was able to find funding for an education liaison to work with the schools and help get children the assistance they needed. Recently, however, the referrals have outpaced the ability of the services to meet the need, so the court is looking for more help.
The program being considered is one that came about initially through the efforts and concern of another court, this one in Prince George’s County. A judge in the Family Court there became concerned over the educational state of children appearing before her. Through her efforts and those of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland (PBRC), in partnership with the courts, Maryland Disability Law Center, and Community Legal Services of Prince George’s County, the Children’s Education Project was created.
The focus of the project is to develop a process by which children are able to get to the necessary programs when they are identified as having unresolved educational needs. This usually happens as they are coming into contact with the juvenile justice system. Each county establishes the pathway that works best for that county, but the overall result is the same. Children coming through the juvenile justice system get referred to the agencies that can help them. The agencies involved help with the recruitment and training of the volunteers, and PBRC helps with the coordination.
“This is the need,” says Dan Schmitt, a Towson-based attorney. “There is an overall need for children to get timely assistance with court issues”. Schmitt got involved last year when the Children’s Education Project was initiated in Baltimore County. “It takes a little time to get all the pieces in place, but the program is being very warmly received and children are being referred to agencies that will get them the help they need,” says Schmitt.
As the project starts to unfold in Baltimore City, the next step is to recruit and train volunteers. A date has been set for November 5, 2008, and is being generously hosted by DLA Piper, LLP (USA) at the Marbury Building, located at 6225 Smith Avenue in Fort Washington. The training will be held in the evening from 6:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. and will cover aspects necessary for the volunteer to know, such as school discipline policies and procedures as well as the components of an IEP and what is required of both the school system and the student.
If you would like to get involved in Baltimore City or if you feel your county could benefit from this project, please contact PBRC at (800) 396-1274, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Support pro bono work in your community. Add your resources to the fight.
For more information on the legal service volunteer opportunities in Maryland, contact Jon Moseley at PBRC at (410) 837-9379 or (800) 396-1274, or e-mail email@example.com.
Jon Moseley is Director of Volunteer Services & Community Outreach for the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.