By Danielle Beurteaux
|Photograph by Mark
When kids are victims of abuse or neglect, in the foster
care system, about to age out of foster care or caught in the
middle of a custody case, they need help in and out of the
courtroom. "The reality is that somebody has to represent these
kids," says John Shapiro, board chair of Lawyers for
Shapiro, 57, managing director and co-founder of $1
billion-plus, value-oriented fund Chieftain Capital Management,
has been involved with Lawyers for Children since the
nonprofit's founding in 1984. Lawyers for Children provides
free legal and social work services to help kids find a stable
home. When lawyer Karen Freedman, who worked in the family
court system, started Lawyers for Children, she turned to
Shapiro, a friend from their Wesleyan University days. He
helped with the business end of setting up a
nonprofit—establishing its financial structure,
fundraising, and taking care of what Shapiro calls the mundane
day-to-day concerns. He formally became a board member in 1988
and board chair in 1999.
Initially, says Shapiro, judges were apprehensive about
Lawyers for Children's work but eventually came to appreciate
the value the organization's attorneys brought to the
courtroom. "The judges recognized that it made their job better
because if Lawyers for Children was representing a child, they
knew there was somebody unbiased in the picture."
Now Lawyers for Children is regarded as an expert in the
field of children's rights law, and the group has expanded its
work with projects on sexual abuse, domestic violence,
immigration, sexual orientation and other legal issues that
affect kids. It's assisted more than 50,000 kids since it
began. "They're really in the trenches representing the kids,"
The organization's clients come from all walks of life.
Sometimes Lawyers for Children is appointed to a case by the
court; other times kids find the group themselves. But one
thing they have in common, says Shapiro, is they need help. "By
the time they get to us, they're already in some process of
separation from their parents."
Freedman calls Shapiro a tremendous manager and fundraiser.
"I don't think we ever would have been able to reach the
numbers of children we reach now or have developed as an
organization without his leadership," she says. "I really don't
think it would have been possible."
Lawyers for Children now has 23 full-time lawyers and 20
social workers on staff. In 2010 the group will represent 6,000
children in 4,000 cases, working with a budget of $6.3 million.
Lawyers for Children is the only legal advocacy organization
for kids where each case is assigned a social worker as well as
a lawyer. Because the organization receives state funding only
for legal fees, it holds fundraisers for the remainder of its
annual budget, as the group doesn't have an endowment.
But Shapiro doesn't need to do a hard sell: Lawyers for
Children's mission to be a child's legal voice speaks for
itself. "As a donor, you feel there's a very close connection
to your money and what's being done," he says. "It's pretty
hard not be sympathetic about the people we help."