To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:
As a lawyer and a father, I have always been interested in exploring what we can do to reach out to children, who are our future, and particularly at-risk children. As president of the Houston Bar Association this year, I learned some startling statistics regarding children who have been in foster care programs. In a study conducted by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, they found:
•foster children are much more likely to be unemployed;
almost 25 percent live on the street or in shelters;
• more than 75 percent of young women have been pregnant;
• nearly 60 percent of young men have been convicted of a crime, and more than 80 percent been arrested; and
• only six percent had an associate or bachelor's degree.
Nationwide, 513,000 young people live in foster care. The State of Texas ranks fourth highest in the nation, with 28,883 youth currently in foster care. In Houston alone, that number is 6,613 youth. Those exiting the foster care system are twice as likely to drop out of high school and are at great risk of arrest and incarceration.
As lawyers and as concerned citizens, we can help them. We might not be juvenile law specialists, family law practitioners or criminal defense attorneys, but there are ways in which we can provide assistance to these young adults. Houston has an organization called the Houston Alumni and Youth (HAY) Center that provides services to youth ages 16 to 25. One of the HAY Center programs is called PAL - Preparation for Adult Living. This program provides resources and services to those youth who are aging out of the foster care system. The Houston Bar Association is going to work with this program in several ways:
• providing attorneys to speak to youth on a variety of legal topics of their choosing;
• providing attorneys to speak to HAY Center staff on legal issues that affect their work with youth;
• recruiting knowledgeable attorneys to assist with expunging and sealing juvenile records that could prevent them from getting jobs or attending college; and
• holding a drive to create a "ready room" to store housewares, clothing and other items these youth will need as they prepare for their first independent living arrangement.
There are organizations like the HAY Center throughout the nation. I encourage attorneys to talk to their professional associations about developing programs to support these organizations and the youth they serve, many of whom have faced hardships that we cannot imagine.
The Houston Bar Association has another new program that focuses on youth of all ages and a problem drawn from today's headlines. We are partnering with the Houston Young Lawyers Association to distribute copies of a new DVD called "R U Safe? Protecting Yourself in Cyberspace," to all elementary, middle and high schools in the Houston area. This wonderful DVD was developed by the Texas Young Lawyers Association and provides information on topics such as cyberbullying, "sexting" and Internet predators, formatted to appeal to youth in different grade levels, as well as their parents. In a society where children and teens have personal computers, iPhones and other real-time devices, this DVD shows them the dangers and the legal risks of inappropriate use.
Lawyers are uniquely qualified to help our communities in many ways, whether we practice corporate law, family law or transactions. If you are interested in finding out about the many community service programs sponsored by the Houston Bar Association, please visit our Web site, www.hba.org, and feel free to contact me or any of our staff members.
T. Mark Kelly