Jan/Feb 2019

NACC the Guadian
Janice Wolf, Esq.

Picture being ten and watching your father being hauled off to jail in handcuffs. Your parents’ argument escalated from verbal to physical, and now someone has called the police. Your father is cursing, and your mother is crying and bleeding. They are both high on meth.

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Picture being ten and watching your father being hauled off to jail in handcuffs. Your parents’ argument escalated from verbal to physical, and now someone has called the police. Your father is cursing, and your mother is crying and bleeding. They are both high on meth.

Picture a Child Protective Services (“CPS”) worker showing up in a County car and saying you have to go with her. You don’t know this person, and you sure as hell don’t want to go anywhere with her. Your mother is screaming and pleading, and now you’re screaming and pleading too. You’re scared not only for yourself, but for your mother. Your job has always been to take care of her. You worry about what will happen to her after you leave and whether you will ever see her again.

When this happened to my client, Robbie, he first tried kicking and hitting the CPS worker, and when that didn’t work, he vomited in her lap. All of us who make child welfare law our profession and our passion have caseloads full of Robbies. And thank goodness, they have us! My Robbie is now 19. I remember him so well, because he was among the first children in the state of Nevada to get an attorney on the day he was removed. Robbie was part of a pilot project that assigned attorneys to every child and every parent in the Clark County foster care system from the day of removal to the day the case closed. We called it the Early Representation Project, or “ERP.”

The idea of an early representation program was not new to America, but in 2009, it was new to Nevada. Looking back, I am proud of the leadership role Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada’s Children’s Attorneys Project (“CAP”) played in making ERP such a success for families caught up in the child welfare system. A highlight was our ability to partner with community philanthropists who so believed in the ERP mission and CAP that they fully funded our two participating children’s attorneys.

Although Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada had been around since 1959, CAP in 2009 was only 10 years old and experiencing growing pains. With about a dozen staff attorneys, we represented fewer than half of the roughly 3,200 children in foster care. Considering we launched in 1999 with one staff attorney and a handful of child welfare cases, representing 1,600 children ten years later was, in hindsight, a very big deal.

CAP learned a lot from ERP. We learned how to dream big, and we learned how to build coalitions, how to partner to make dreams come true.

Our biggest of all dreams has been to represent 100 percent of the 3,400 children in the child welfare system by the end of 2018. We even gave this dream a name: “CAP 100.” And by George, we did it! We really did it! As they said to Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” we can’t believe you did it, but indeed you did!

The best part is that we didn’t have to dream alone. CAP got a huge boost from a Nevada State Legislature that really, really understood the difference an attorney makes in the life of a child. After listening to the testimony of former CAP clients, the legislature passed a law making children parties to child welfare proceedings and guaranteeing them a lawyer to advocate for their legal rights.

We also had financial help from our Clark County Commission. The Commission passed an ordinance giving CAP a percentage of recording fees just to pay for children’s attorneys. And we had help from our judicial officers who respect our work and refer every child entering the child welfare system to our children’s project for representation. 

Finally, our dream could not have come true without the help and support of our vibrant pro bono attorney community. As of December 2018, more than 225 community volunteers represent 836 children in the child welfare system. Las Vegas law firms large and small have committed both time and substantial sums of money to make representing foster children their mission. To these amazing volunteers, most of whom have no prior child welfare experience, CAP provides both mentoring and comprehensive training. Indeed, our pro bono project is so robust that we now have a full time project director and a pro bono liaison to support our volunteers.

This year is special. CAP turns 20, and we have so many reasons to celebrate the journey from where we started to where we are today. So many incredible achievements and so many lessons learned along the way.

Twenty years ago, we started with one child welfare attorney. When I joined CAP in 2005, there were five children’s attorneys, sandwiched in a Legal Aid Center building that has since been torn down and turned into a parking lot.

Today, CAP has 25 attorneys, whose sole mission is to be the advocates and the voices of abused and neglected children, changing lives every single day. Four are certified Child Welfare Law Specialists (CWLS). We see ourselves as a powerful and well-trained army of legal advocates. We pride ourselves on being the smartest, toughest and best prepared lawyers in the courtroom. Our judicial officers look to CAP for answers.

We’ve had to make some important decisions along the way. One of the first was deciding whether we would be Guardians ad litem or client-directed attorneys. We chose to be client-directed, following the models of both the American Bar Association and the NACC. We advise, we counsel, we guide, but ultimately our clients are the decision-makers, and our job is advocate as hard as we can to achieve the outcomes they want.

Our work goes beyond individual client advocacy. Over the years CAP has headed up legislative efforts to reform the system itself. We spearheaded legislation to regulate psychotropic medication, to stop the practice of using psychiatric hospitals as placements for hard-to-place children, to codify a foster children’s bill of rights, to ensure a right to counsel for all foster children, and to stop the practice of separating siblings. Under Nevada law, keeping siblings together is presumed, not merely preferred. We spearheaded the effort to get small children and sibling groups out of congregate care. 

We also have a strong and vibrant educational advocacy program within CAP, headed up by a fulltime experienced educational attorney. We recruit and train Clark County’s educational surrogates, we fight for children with disabilities who fall through the cracks in school. We work collaboratively with the school district, but we also file a lot of due process violation complaints.

So, as we turn 20, CAP has so much to celebrate. We are grateful for our partners and supporters, both inside and outside the Nevada legal community. We will continue to grow, to ensure that CAP 100 lives as long as there are abused and neglected children among us.

About the author:

Janice Wolf is the Directing Attorney of the Children’s Attorneys Project at Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and a Child Welfare Law Specialist. She obtained her law degree from the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii and has practiced child welfare law for more than 25 years in Hawaii and Nevada. She is the former Administrative Director  of the Courts for the State of Hawaii.