Finding legal aid for kids

September 30, 2010  

John Shapiro of Lawyers for Children.

Photograph by Mark Hartman
By Danielle Beurteaux

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 Children.

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," says Shapiro.

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."

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