Last year, 530,000 of North Carolina’s children lived in poverty, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Project. This astonishing number means that nearly 1 in 4 children lived at or below the federal poverty level, limiting available resources for necessities like housing, food, health care, and transportation.
While growing up in poverty negatively affects many aspects of a child’s life, these difficulties are exacerbated when a child also experiences conflict at home. The Child’s Advocate, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina, works to resolve some of these tough situations by providing attorneys to children in highly contentious family court cases in Wake County. The program works with private lawyers and mental health professionals in cases which usually involve chronic conflict between parents, neglect, substance abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, continuing litigation, mental illness, or children with special needs.
Pro bono attorneys are critical in protecting the interests of The Child Advocate’s young clients, ensuring that their voices are heard. As attorney volunteer Evonne Hopkins shared, “I volunteer for the kids. There are kids in the county who are not being heard and who are caught up in a horrible custody battle. The children are the ultimate victims of these cases – powerless victims – who didn’t ask for this experience. As a volunteer, I can advocate for these children, offer them someone to confide in, and hopefully help them stay out of the middle of the fight. And ultimately, if their case ends up in court, I can either prepare my client to testify or find ways for the court to hear the evidence it needs to ensure that my client’s voice is being heard.”
Pro bono attorney Susan Goetcheus also shared the importance of volunteering with The Child’s Advocate: “Working as a lawyer, you are tied to a community and a system of government. It feels natural and fulfilling to give back to the community, especially working with children, to help those who are unable to pay your fees. But it is also important that fairness be built into the system – fairness should be spread out to those who cannot afford an attorney, and pro bono volunteers can help ensure that fairness.
Cases taken on by The Child’s Advocate are good for pro bono attorneys as well. According to family law attorney and pro bono volunteer Sydney Batch: “Pro bono legal service with The Child’s Advocate has helped inform my paid work because I can share with my paying clients the importance of leaving children out of litigation, minimizing conflict, and information to position them to effectively and positively change the trajectory of kids’ lives.” She goes on to share “These are cases that I do on my own time that I find fulfilling and enriching, but if I were not their attorney, these clients would lose the opportunity to be heard and justice would not be served.” Similarly, attorney volunteer Pat McNally shared that volunteering with The Child’s Advocate “brings a new perspective for my regular cases, where I advocate for parents as opposed to advocating for a child – the work reminds us that there is still another human being involved in the case: the child.”
The Child’s Advocate provides needed support for vulnerable children in our community, and thanks the following pro bono attorney volunteers for their assistance in providing that support:
Heather Forshey Williams