One of the important missions of the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo is to 'stand up for children'. WBFO's senior reporter Eileen Buckley says the agency represents more than 5,000 children each year and makes education advocacy a priority.
"It became clear to us, over the course of our work, with thousands of children annually that addressing their education needs was a critical element in addressing their life needs,” said Judy Gerber, chief attorney at Attorneys for Children Unit at Legal Aid.
The Legal Aid Bureau is in the constant process of supporting children involved in child welfare cases and in juvenile justice system of Family Court in Buffalo. Gerber leads the Education Advocacy and Policy Reform Initiative, working to make sure a child has access to education and support services.
“We represent children who are subject to lack of school stability or facing possibility of unstable schooling because of their movement into or within foster care, children who may be considered homeless, we represent children with respect to their special education needs, we represent children in accessing general education services such as bi-lingual education,” Gerber explained.
The children experience a range of issues. Requests are made for many of these children to seek permanency for a stable home-life and a stable relationships of a caregiver. Many have a lack of access to needed services and unfortunately school is not always a priority with some families.
"My role, in our education practice, is usually to have that initial conversation with the parent and really identify some of the main concerns that the child is experiencing at the school level,” remarked Charles Ehlers, senior paralegal who works at Legal Aid.
Children with school discipline issues, such as a long or short term school suspension or minor to serious behavioral issues that are preventing from the success in school.
“I’ll try to get records, because what the records do is they allow us to get information on that student that we wouldn’t necessarily have from the parent. They are able to really give us a full picture of what that student is like in school,” Ehlers said.
The school records can go back several years, identifying a potential traumatic experience that occurred in the child's life, pinpointing behavioral troubles. Many of the children are struggling with a mental health issue.
“I will note there is sometimes is a clear difference between mental illness and trauma-induced kinds of mental health behavioral issues. We’ve seen children who are doing pretty well, all of a sudden experience a major disruption in lives – a movement into foster care, movement from home to home and we watch, sadly, as that child is groping with those challenges and see things fall apart,” Gerber replied.
“And in terms of mental illness – it really happens across the spectrum. We see children that are dealing with very minor special Ed issues and children that are going through incredibly traumatic experiences that are then coupled with already existing mental health issues that they have. That’s most of our demographic - is children that have mental health and mental illness,” Ehlers noted.
“What is missing in those family lives that is bringing this child to the point where they need your intervention,” asked Buckley.
“We see such a range of issues with respect to lack of income, lack of power, lack of access to services, families who are struggling to maintain a roof over their heads to ensure that there is food on the table,” Gerber answered.
The legal advocates tell us they've witnessed successful outcomes, when a stable school setting and proper help is provided. In one case, a student struggling with difficult behavioral troubles, is now thriving in a public school setting and he’s engaged in sports.
“But we’re able to secure more wins for the child – we’re really able to make a significant difference in these children’s lives,” Ehlers responded.