Articles

Philadelphia Bar Reporter, March 2020: I Am a Child Advocate, by Brett Wolfson

I Am a Child Advocate
by Brett Wolfson

I have been a Volunteer Child Advocate Attorney with the Support Center for Child Advocates for 10 years. I believe it is our obligation as attorneys to give back to the community and our ethical requirement to provide pro bono legal services.

After completing the training, “How to Handle a Child Abuse Case,” I received my first assignment. I was partnered with a Child Advocate Social Worker to represent an infant whose mother was addicted to drugs and was mentally ill and unable to care for him. Following unsuccessful attempts at recovery, my client’s mother voluntarily relinquished her parental rights, and the baby’s aunt adopted him. It was a rewarding day.

My next case took seven years to resolve! I represented “James,” a 12-year-old whose mother was in and out of prison and unable to care for him due to her mental illness and criminal and addiction history.

James was very smart, but the early emotional trauma he suffered played out in behavioral issues, leading to instability in foster homes. I had many talks with James about owning his choices and making the most of opportunities. I advocated for appropriate therapy and a change in educational settings. Eventually, James was enrolled in a charter high school with a great football program. While he continued to struggle with grades and was disruptive in his foster placements, football kept him focused. Then James met “Coach.” James informed us that he wanted Coach to adopt him. Coach was young, single, had no kids and a full time job. He also ran a nonprofit mentoring program. Now, he was volunteering to be a foster parent! Our team met with Coach to discuss the gravity of the undertaking. Concerned about the impact a failed placement would have on James, I emphasized the importance of thinking through this commitment, saying “no” now versus building up James’ expectations and letting him down later.

Coach underwent intensive foster parent training, all the while hearing from various case workers that he couldn’t do it, that he was not equipped. I found myself advocating for Coach, which I saw as the best way to help James. I believed that Coach was James’ hope for a family.

We had to intervene to support Coach and James on several occasions. Coach was learning to parent a teen who could be stubborn, make bad choices and act out. I served as mediator between the two, bringing perspective to the realities of parent-child relationships. Coach was grateful for the support we provided him throughout the process—and I saw how some of my talks with James started to sink in.

Today, the adoption is final; Coach is “Dad.” James, now 19 years old, attends junior college and received all A’s in his first semester classes! As I told James on adoption day, no matter what, whether he makes a mistake or wants to celebrate a success, he will always have this man as his
family, his Dad. James has a place where he can always turn; he has a home.

Brett Wolfson (BWolfson@rawle.com) is a partner in the Philadelphia office of Rawle & Henderson LLP.

This article was published in the Philadelphia Bar Reporter, The Monthly Newspaper of the Philadelphia Bar Association, Vol. 49. No. 3, March 2020.