Not all superheroes wear capes. Some sport professorial tweed and brown leather loafers. Professor Robert Fellmeth appears mild-mannered enough with his white Sean Connery beard, but for more than 20 years he and his colleagues at the USD School of Law’s Children’s Advocacy Institute (CAI) have fought mighty battles to improve — even save — the lives of countless children.
Working in such diverse arenas as health and safety, education, poverty, abuse, delinquency and disability, the team at CAI regularly assembles child advocates from throughout the state to share information and bring about legislative reform.
Nothing less than protecting society’s weakest members is their lofty goal.
“I always thought even when I was young that this was the group I would want to represent,” says Fellmeth, “because they’re not powerful. They do not have campaign money. They’re not articulate. They’re not organized. But they’re our future.”
Fellmeth, the founder and executive director of USD’s Center for Public Interest Law as well as CAI, began his career working with Ralph Nader as one of the original “Nader’s Raiders.” He speaks with great urgency, his right hand slicing through the air for emphasis. As he sees it, a pervasive selfishness in society has led to dire consequences for children today.
“I’m looking at the greatest generation and their record. I’m looking at the infrastructure they put together. I’m looking at everything from water projects to national parks to major investments that went beyond their tenure. And I look at the baby boomers and I ask, ‘How are you measuring up?’ And the answer is, it’s pathetic. It’s probably the worst performing generation in American history in terms of investment in children, in terms of infrastructure investment in children, in terms of the debt obligation we’re imposing on them, in terms of environmental degradations,” he details in rapid fire.
“I’m interested in having the Children’s Advocacy Institute be one group that says, ‘Hey, it was passed down the line to you. Why are you not passing it down?’”
Desks are buried beneath papers in the cramped quarters of CAI, located on the ground level of the Pardee Legal Research Center. Here, the dedicated staff of 11 lawyers and administrators have passed up executive compensation and marble-floored lobbies in favor of cubicles and hallways lined with file boxes. CAI also has a small Sacramento office, where it employs the state’s only full-time lobbyist on child issues. Although USD’s School of Law funds CAI’s academic program, the $500,000 in advocacy funding needed each year must be raised through donations, grants and legal fees awarded for cases won.
CAI has a long list of accomplishments in the past 20 years — from helping pass California’s bicycle helmet law to childcare licensing reform to creating “Kids’ Plates” license plates, which fund health and safety programs. Not that Fellmeth is patting himself on the back. “I don’t like self-congratulations,” he says. “We have no basis to congratulate ourselves. We’re proud of the things we’ve done, but if you look at the glass, it’s about one-inch full.”
A prime example of the work that remains to be done is the predicament faced by kids who age out of foster care. “When foster kids hit eighteen, they fall off a cliff,” says Fellmeth, citing the group’s staggering rates of mental illness, suicide, incarceration and homelessness. “Down the road, over 30 percent of the current homeless are former foster youth,” he explains.
Kids on the StreetsTwenty-two-year-old LaQuita embodies this problem. Removed from her home at age 11 because of an alcoholic mother and abusive stepfather, LaQuita was bounced around five or six group homes for the next seven years. At age 18, she found herself out on the streets two months before her high school graduation. With the help of Kriste Draper ‘06 (JD), a CAI attorney and head of CAI’s Homeless Youth Outreach Project (HYOP), LaQuita enrolled in an alternative high school to complete her final few classes. At night, she slept behind an Office Depot near downtown San Diego with just a few blankets to keep warm.
“I had nothing when I came out here, and every time I came to Kriste I was in tears,” LaQuita recalls. “I told myself, ‘OK, this is only for a short time.’” In December 2006, LaQuita graduated high school. Draper was there to cheer her on, even though LaQuita’s parents were not. After high school, LaQuita wanted to go to college, but participation in a transitional housing program would require her to work full-time. LaQuita’s goal is to become a social worker and she’s determined to do it on her own terms. So for now, she lives in a tent in a riverbed and attends Miramar Community College in San Diego.
“I know it’s not safe. I know that I have to find something better,” she says. “That’s what keeps me motivated to keep going.”
Setbacks occur, like the day she returned to her tent after heavy rains to find that her possessions, including textbooks, had been washed away. But there are also triumphs, like last semester when she got her first ‘A’ on an exam. Draper gets LaQuita trolley passes and food cards, helps her acquire student loans and writes reference letters for scholarships. (One scholarship earned LaQuita a laptop computer, but it was stolen after just a few months.)
“I fight every day,” says LaQuita. “It’s a battle to find a spot to lay your head, to find a spot to eat, to find a spot to shower, to find a spot to study. Every day is a fighting battle.”
One cool winter evening, LaQuita treks to the Stand Up For Kids Outreach Center in downtown San Diego. She and scads of other homeless youths know they can find Draper here every Monday night.
Draper spearheaded HYOP — the only program in San Diego that offers legal assistance for homeless youth — in 2006. She helps kids get documentation (many of them have no ID or birth certificate), benefits like food stamps or Medi-Cal and assistance in handling tickets for minor offenses. She also hooks kids up with about 15 other agencies — outreach centers, shelters and social services — to help them get off the streets. “Whatever the kids need me to do, I do. And it keeps my job fun,” she remarks with a laugh.
Draper herself looks young, with shiny shoulder-length hair and dangling earrings. She knows most of these kids by name and spends time building relationships and trust. When she arranges follow-up meetings with the kids, she makes an effort to meet them where it’s convenient for them: in a Starbucks, on a street corner, in an outreach center.
“At their core, these are kids, and they’re so full of adventure and hope and innocence,” Draper says. “As an adult, I make a lot of choices, and I have to face the consequences. These kids didn’t make any choices that landed them on the streets. But that’s where they ended up — and that’s not okay. They deserve to have a chance at a life.”
Fighting for JusticeImproving the plight of foster children in California has been an ongoing mission for the Children’s Advocacy Institute. Though federal law requires that foster families be paid for the basic living expenses of a child, in reality, California rates are “pitifully low,” says Elisa Weichel ‘90 (JD), CAI’s administrative director.
In its lawsuit against the state of California, CAI proved that the state never properly evaluated the cost to families of raising a foster child. (One parent participating in the lawsuit reported that her daughter’s daycare expenses alone were $200 more a month than the family’s total reimbursement.) As a result, the number of foster families has dropped dramatically in the past decade. Though CAI won its case at the district court level to increase rates paid to foster families, the state has appealed.
Lending a hand to foster kids like LaQuita who age out of the system is another pressing goal. Fellmeth says that on average, a young person achieves self-sufficiency at age 26 in this country. Between the ages of 18 and 26, kids of private parents rely on support from their families to establish themselves. Many still live at home; parents give them an average of $45,000 during these years. Foster youth, on the other hand, have nowhere to crash and get an average of just $7,000-$8,000 — most of which is directed at the three percent who manage to get some sort of college degree.
CAI’s innovative solution is called TLC, which stands for Transition Life Coach. The idea is to create a trust for foster kids and have the kids appoint a reliable adult as their trustee. “Now you say to the kid, ‘We want you to achieve self-sufficiency. How are you going to do it? What kind of job do you want? Where do you want to live?’ You work out a plan, customized by the kid. The kid buys into it. It goes on until the kid achieves self-sufficiency like every other kid of private parents does,” explains Fellmeth.
The first battle has been won: California has authorized the program. Now CAI is seeking to fund it through Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act. Though the proposition specifies that the transition-age youth population is a priority for funding, right now they get almost nothing, says Fellmeth. A recent CAI report surveyed how all counties in California spend Prop. 63 money, and then graded them on how well they serve transition-age foster youth. The 26 counties that are home to almost 80 percent of California’s foster youth received an F. “These are their own children and they’re ignoring them,” says Fellmeth in disbelief.
Much of CAI’s advocacy involves forcing legislators (or “shaming” them, as Fellmeth says) into simply obeying the law. “It’s very easy for legislators, federal and state, to hold a press conference and enact a bill. And then it ends,” says Fellmeth. “A perfect example is the Supreme Court’s own [California] Blue Ribbon Commission on Children. One of their reports concluded that attorneys for a kid in dependency court should not have more than 188 kids as clients, and a lawsuit we filed in Sacramento documents caseloads of 380. The attorneys can’t do what needs to be done. They don’t know enough about the kids. Decisions are made in the dark. It’s a scandal. But it doesn’t get any publicity because it’s all confidential.” CAI’s litigation challenging excessive caseloads is still pending.
“What we’re all about is trying to leverage change,” says Fellmeth. “The emphasis is not on representing an individual kid but on how can we change the rules so that more of these kids are represented effectively. Every once in awhile we win one, and when we do it can have an impact.”
Sowing Seeds of ChangeAt noon on a sunny February day, nine law students gather around a table and grab a slice of pizza. They’ve all taken Fellmeth’s class, “Child Rights and Remedies” (for which he also wrote a textbook that’s used nationwide), and are participating in CAI’s legal and policy clinics. The legal clinics offer students hands-on experience working within the Public Defender’s Office representing children. This program started through a collaboration with one of Fellmeth’s former students, Ana España ‘82 (JD), previously a deputy public defender who now serves as a judge for San Diego Superior Court.
“Students meet with children in foster care, and if they are certified, they appear in court, make calls on cases and prepare cases for hearings and trials. They have a lot of involvement in the actual practice of dependency law,” explains España.
At their weekly meetings, students discuss progress and brainstorm solutions to problems. Fellmeth calls it his “firm” meeting; however, at this firm, most of the lawyers wear jeans and carry backpacks. On this day though, one exception is a student dressed in a suit, having just returned from court. He discusses his client, a boy charged with kicking his friend in the leg. Even though there was no serious injury and his client has no prior convictions, the judge detained the boy to Juvenile Hall for the duration of the case (which could take weeks or months) rather than letting him go home. In fact, this judge has detained all but one out of 44 kids, reports the student (who prefers not to be identified for this story).
“How about challenging her?” suggests Fellmeth. “What I would do is ask the judge, ‘Has your kid ever gotten into a fight?’ These are children. You want to make an impression on them, but you don’t want to overburden the system.” He then advises the student to collect a letter from the school along with proof that there has been no injury and return to the judge with this new evidence.
Student Breeanna Fujio has just returned from a meeting with a client. “The clinic has been the best experience I’ve had in law school,” she says. Nonetheless, interviewing kids in abuse cases has been a sobering experience. “It’s horrible to think that parents could abuse their babies,” she says. “When some babies are born, they test positive for meth or other drugs and they’re taken away at the hospital. Sometimes it just feels like it’s not going to get better for these kids.”
For student Grace Pineda, working with child prostitution cases has been an eye-opening experience. “Some district attorneys choose to prosecute these minors, but it’s not like children choose to be prostitutes.” Currently Pineda is helping CAI research novel legislation in other states in order to create a model statute that would treat minor prostitutes as victims instead of criminals.
In fact, that’s the chief goal of CAI’s collaboration with the Public Defender’s Office and its outreach to homeless youths: to identify problems that can be addressed through advocacy. In her own work as a lawyer, España brought numerous advocacy issues to the attention of CAI — problems with foster kids not getting annual physical exams or not having their education records transferred from school to school, for example — and CAI worked to bring about legislative fixes.
“Before the Children’s Advocacy Institute existed, it was very easy to basically ignore child issues. They’re not old enough to vote,” says España. “But CAI has absolutely put on the table for discussion with policymakers the needs of all children across California.”
Another former student, Kirsten Widner ‘07 (JD), is currently director of policy and advocacy for the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory Law School in Atlanta, where she’s helping to rewrite the juvenile code of Georgia. She credits her success to CAI and the opportunities she had for hands-on advocacy. In particular, she commends Fellmeth for inspiring her to work with passion and creativity. “I aspire to do half the good work that he’s done in his career,” she says.
Despite accolades, Fellmeth confesses that any pride he feels is immediately washed away by guilt. “We’ve had 20 years, and every year something has happened that we’re happy about. But what you don’t see are the losses, the bills that died in suspense without even a vote, the people who won’t pay any attention to us, and the media who ignore our issues. So am I proud? I really can’t afford to be proud of what we’ve done. The glass is 80 percent empty.”
Meanwhile, it’s approaching dusk. LaQuita munches on a cupful of Chex cereal at the outreach center. It’s getting dark, and she doesn’t feel safe in this part of town. She gives Draper a hug, squares her shoulders and heads back home, to her tent.
FEATURE PHOTO BY Tim Mantoani