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Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts: Securing Equal Justice for Low-Income Children and Youth

By John Carroll

Forty years ago, the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts (CLCM) opened its doors in Lynn with a mission to promote and secure equal justice and maximize opportunity for low-income children and youth throughout the Commonwealth. Since then the organization has had remarkable success in protecting this vulnerable demographic group through local advocacy and by advocating and litigating for systemic change.

For an example of their expert local advocacy, consider the difference the organization made in the lives of 20-year-old “Melissa” (a pseudonym used to protect her privacy), and her two younger siblings. Their father abandoned the family, but they were left without anyone when they lost their mother to cancer. Melissa’s wish was to care for her siblings and keep them all together. Given Melissa’s youth and her school and work commitments, her plans to care of her younger siblings were dubious. The foster care system loomed.

That is, until a CLCM attorney took charge. Against the odds, he helped Melissa get legal custody of her siblings. He then provided assistance so she could secure survivor benefits, health insurance, food stamps, fuel, utilities and housing. He taught her budgeting and financial management. The attorney also provided legal help to Melissa in housing court. Finally, the legal advocate sponsored small fundraising efforts to help Melissa acquire funds to keep the family afloat. Thanks to the commitment of this CLCM counsel, Melissa and her siblings have remained together and have done quite well.

Working more broadly, CLCM was influential in the reform of state and federal laws that mandated life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders. In 2007, the organization recruited a Fellow to investigate, research, and publish a definitive study on the sentencing of youth to life imprisonment without parole. At the time, only Massachusetts and Connecticut mandated that juveniles as young as 14 who were charged with first degree murder (even if only an accomplice, under the felony-murder rule) could be tried as an adult. If convicted, Massachusetts law required that such children be sentenced to life without parole. Through a report, “Until They Die a Natural Death,” published in 2009, CLCM began advocating for changes in this legislation, a goal that was ultimately realized at both the federal and state levels.

Aside from its headquarters in Lynn, CLCM has project offices in Boston and Chelsea and will re-open an office in Lawrence office in September 2017. The agency has nine attorneys, an AmeriCorps volunteer, and a panel of about 40 volunteer private attorneys. Jay McManus, CLCM’s executive director, is a public-spirited lawyer who, like his peers, is committed to helping vulnerable people.

Aside from working on juvenile justice reform, CLCM engages in an array of educational and systemic change efforts, including research, appellate and legislative advocacy, impact litigation, and committee and task force work. It produces informative, easy-to-read materials, such as “Quick Reference Guides” on Children’s Behavioral Health Initiatives (CBHI)-Mental Health Services, special education, school discipline and Child Requiring Assistance (CRA) matters—all documents regularly used by attorneys and advocates throughout Massachusetts. CLCM also publishes, on an annual basis, community resource manuals that give parents, attorneys and providers for most cities and towns in southern Essex county and Merrimack Valley a compendium of critical social and legal services for low-income children.

CLCM’s local advocacy is focused on individual legal representation of children in a range of substantive areas, including education, immigration, child welfare, mental health and juvenile justice. Its local advocacy service area encompasses Essex County and Greater Boston. CLCM provides legal representation to more than 400 clients per year; an additional 1,500 children receive limited legal assistance.

The agency also does close to 100 trainings per year across the Commonwealth, reaching 2,000 – 3,000 attorneys, providers and parents.

CLCM is funded by Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, the Massachusetts Bar Foundation, the Boston Bar Foundation, and the United Way, as well as several private foundations, including Cummings, Clowes, Eastern Bank and HG Shaw, among others, along with individual and corporate donors. The good that this agency does is exponentially greater, many times over, than the resources it has at its disposal. CLCM punches well above its weight.

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John Carroll is a a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.

Our Kids in Mass. Are Alright, But We Can Do Better

By Lonnie Powers

Here in Massachusetts, we have more than 200,000 children living in poverty, and more than one-third of them live in families extremely vulnerable to homelessness. Despite this, our state leads the nation in rankings for overall child well-being, according to the 2014 KIDS COUNT Data Book, an annual report from The Annie E. Casey Foundation that tracks the economic, educational, health and family/community well-being of America’s children.

One of the primary reasons Massachusetts does so well, relatively speaking, can be attributed to the state’s robust network of nonprofits that advocate on behalf of low income children and families. While legal services may not immediately come to mind as a significant factor when it comes to fighting poverty, hunger and homelessness, the state’s civil legal aid organizations are a vital part of this safety net.

To give one example: legal aid organizations routinely secure vital educational services for children. Take the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts (CLCM), which provided full litigation representation involving education issues to 208 students and their families in FY13. In most of these cases, CLCM won appropriate school services, including placements and reinstatements. CLCM also provided advice and brief services to another 796 students. Among their clients are youth excluded from school or segregated in inadequate alternative school settings, children who are homeless, and children who are in foster care.

The state’s federal reimbursement for the cost of intensive behavioral services provided by Massachusetts to low-income children with autism increased thanks to advocacy by Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC). Beginning in FY08, MAC’s advocacy for the Children’s Autism Medicaid Waiver resulted in the Commonwealth receiving 50 percent federal reimbursement. The waiver was originally capped at $2.5 million but expanded to $3 million in FY11 with MAC’s advocacy. In FY13 MAC again advocated for expansion, resulting in the cap being raised to $4 million. This will result in the state receiving an additional $500,000 in federal reimbursement each year. The program, which served 182 students in December 2013, now has the capacity to serve 220 children. Not only are these children receiving the intensive services they need and deserve, resulting in a higher quality of life, but over the long term, many can be expected to avoid costly institutionalization, saving as much as $195,000 per year per child.

Additionally, the Center for Law and Education combines statewide advocacy with technical support and collaborative policy work to identify the systemic patterns underlying student exclusion from effective education and to advocate for changes in school policies and practices to improve student outcomes. Their work benefits all low-income students, including those with disabilities.

This is the kind of work it takes to keep children, especially those facing exceptional obstacles, in school. As Noah Berger, president of MassBudget, the Massachusetts KIDS Count group, noted in announcing the report earlier this summer, “Dismantling the barriers to success that are holding back too many of our children will not be easy. It requires improving our schools and the array of supports our kids need to be ready to thrive in school.”

Our children need more stability if they’re to succeed as adults. All of our safety net organizations need support to continue their vital work. And civil legal aid must continue to be a part of that safety net to ensure that all of the Commonwealth’s children reach their full potential as students and productive members of our communities.

While we may hold the top spot in the country for child well-being, it’s clearly not good enough. Our kids may be doing better than most, but we want them to be excellent.

Lonnie A. Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. He has more than 40 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director.