Foster kids have ally in legal aid center

And you thought reading, writing and arithmetic were the hard parts.

Faced with a variety of societal stresses, the Clark County School District is tasked with putting its arms around students from all walks of life. Some of those kids enter school under circumstances that are difficult for many of us to imagine.

In public school, the doors are open to all.

That includes the community’s growing generation of children in foster care. Abused, neglected and from broken homes, many of those kids come to school not only with the challenge of a new residence, but also with physical, mental and emotional disabilities.

Success for them might seem like a long shot, but getting an education is their best chance to rise above their withering prospects. And they can’t do it without help.

That’s where the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada comes in. The nonprofit center’s Education Surrogate Parent Program trains volunteer advocates to stand with those foster kids with special needs. As almost always in Las Vegas, there’s an open call for volunteers.

The introductory training takes approximately 2.5 hours, Legal Aid Executive Director Barbara Buckley says. Follow-up training is done on a monthly basis. Although the process is probably easier to appreciate for parents of children with disabilities, paralegals and retired teachers, anyone with a sincere interest is welcome. (For more information, contact surrogates@lacsn.org or call 386-1070, ext. 1446.) The next training meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Feb. 27 at the legal aid office at 725 E. Charleston Blvd.

“We represent many children in the foster care system who also have educational issues due to their disabilities,” Buckley says. “Many of the challenges they face they carry with them when they go to school. Often these kids in foster care don’t have anyone to advocate for them, especially kids in group homes.”

At present, approximately 100 legal aid volunteers advocate for about 140 foster care students with disabilities. But the number of children in need is growing steadily, Buckley says.

“We have more kids than we have volunteers right now,” she says, noting that social workers by law aren’t allowed to represent foster care children who have special needs and what the school district calls an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

The legal aid center represents approximately 2,000 children in foster care and in recent months added three attorneys to help process a burgeoning caseload. Its training of advocates isn’t a criticism of the school district, Buckley says, only an acknowledgment of the reality of the challenges public schools face.

“Most of the schools want to do the right thing,” she says. “Once in a while, you get a school that’s busy and a kid is going to fall between the cracks. … School can be tough for any kid, but when a child is in foster care and has a disability and is having trouble in school, they need someone by their side to be their advocate, to be their voice.”

Students from foster care tend to do less well than their peers, and according to the fostercaremonth.org website, 30 percent to 40 percent are in special education. Every move a foster care child is forced to make can put them behind several months academically, the site says. Those with special needs are in an even tougher spot.

For some children, the accommodation could be as simple as understanding the need for a hearing or visual aid. For others, the challenges might be complex.

“Our goal is to represent every abused child,” Buckley says. “We’re not going to rest until every child has a voice.”

You don’t have to be a social worker or special education expert to advocate for a foster care child with special needs.

You just have to answer the bell when it rings.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.