It was the 1990s. And attorney James Marsh grew tired of how DC children swept up in the abuse and neglect system were faring.
At the time, almost 8,000 children were under the watch of the DC government because of allegations of abuse and neglect – and about 3,000 languished in foster care without much hope of joining a forever family. Grandparents and other relatives who wanted to care for these kids often had to navigate the child welfare bureaucracy alone.
He was just beginning his legal career, but Marsh had been trained in child neglect at the University of Michigan. That wasn’t the case for many lawyers across the country or here in DC.
The lack of specialized knowledge about abuse and neglect among lawyers and judges at the time meant children were “at the whim” of who was at court the day their cases came in, Marsh says.
“It was like Russian roulette. Some lawyers were competent on the legal issues at hand. Others on children’s issues. Others on dealing with poverty and race. Lawyers could be good at one but not all.”
“If you were a lucky child you would make it through,” Marsh says.
But most children weren’t very lucky.
Then one day Marsh was assigned to represent a 15-year-old girl, Henrietta.* She came into foster care when the older man she lived with was reported for abuse. But it turns out the man wasn’t a relative or legal guardian. Henrietta had been trafficked to the U.S. from Jamaica.
“The word ‘trafficked’ was not in anyone’s vocabulary but someone somewhere realized something was wrong,” he says.
Legally, Henrietta was in a murky area. She wasn’t a citizen and DC wanted to turn her over to the federal government to be deported. But Marsh felt that as a minor who was growing up in DC when she was abused, she deserved some protection within DC’s child welfare system.
“This case was thrown into this black hole. Everyone was focusing on the immigration issues but no one was focusing on the kid. Fortunately, she got a good judge and we were able to put the brakes on things…We were able to track down an organization from California that had expertise [in trafficking] and we found a pathway forward…so she could stay in foster care.”
James realized that more had to be done to ensure that, no matter what, the system set up to protect children – judges, lawyers, social workers, child protection workers – focused on the needs of the child and what could help her recover and thrive.
“I realized, it was the luck of the draw that Henrietta met me and that I had resources to turn to. I decided it was a bigger problem than any one person. There needed to be a way of making sure when kids like Henrietta came into the system, the court had someone to call, and the person they called needed resources to advocate well.”
That’s when Marsh joined with attorneys Ken Noyes and Diane Weinroth. They imagined an organization with the expertise and legal skills to fight for children in foster care.
And together they started Children’s Law Center in 1996.
“We were a grassroots, home-grown organization made up of local lawyers. We didn’t have much money. But we were able to go in and start working on improving things.”
Soon, Children’s Law Center became a resource for others. “We quickly began getting the attention of judges and the head of the child welfare agency,” Marsh says.
Flash forward to today. Children’s Law Center has expanded its focus beyond foster care to serve all at-risk children in the District. It’s now a trusted resource for judges, pediatricians and family members who turn to us to be the voice for children who are abused and neglected, who aren’t learning in school, or who have health problems that can’t be solved by medicine alone. With 100 staff and hundreds more pro bono attorneys, we now reach one out of every nine children in DC’s poorest neighborhoods. And we have multiplied this impact by advocating for city-wide reforms that benefit all children.
What is Marsh most proud of as he looks back on Children’s Law Center and its impact?
“The thing I’m most proud of is that the Children’s Law Center has served 30,000 children in the last 20 years. It’s not about the numbers though, it’s the quality. I can honestly say those are 30,000 children who had the best possible legal advocacy,” Marsh says.
Children like Henrietta who grew up and still lives in DC. Today, she owns a hair salon and has “made a life for herself despite overwhelming odds,” Marsh says.
As we celebrate our 20th anniversary Children’s Law Center thanks James Marsh for his early vision, tenacity and dedication to the District’s children.
Because of him – and the dedicated team of lawyers, social workers and other staff who have joined Children’s Law Center since its founding – thousands more children are growing up in DC today with a loving family, good health and a quality education.