Advocate of powerless young. Lawyer-turned-child defender runs help agency for children

CAROLE BRILL's clients are the young and the powerless. They include a teen-age mother and infant - both diagnosed as having AIDS; a pair of emotionally disturbed boys who have been expelled from school for violent and disruptive behavior; and a young girl who was locked up in a mental health facility simply because she had no home.

Lawyer Brill half jokingly calls herself a ``hustler.'' She says she hustles legal aid, financial support, and public awareness for children in trouble.

She is a feisty, outspoken advocate who carries the torch of justice for those she characterizes as having the least clout, the least political influence, and the least financial stability of any group in society: children.

In 1975, this lawyer-turned-child defender founded the San Francisco-based Legal Services for Children (LSC). This unique, nonprofit, community-oriented, all-purpose agency helps abused, neglected, runaway, and throwaway youngsters.

Virtually all other child-related private help groups across the United States specialize in one service or another, such as sexual abuse or runaway problems, says Ms. Brill. ``We do all of them.''

From a modest fourth-story walk-up office complex in a converted factory building in the city-by-the-Bay's Civic Center district, Brill and her stable of five lawyers, three social workers, and two interns plan their legal representation for a range of problem-burdened youngsters, from infants to teen-agers.

A $400,000 annual budget keeps LSC afloat. ``We get 75 percent from hustle - 25 percent from the county,'' Brill explains.

The ``hustle'' category includes foundations and corporate grants, money raised from movie and tennis benefits, and contributions from individual lawyers.

Two years ago - when public funds underwriting youth legal services had virtually dried up - LSC was rescued by an attorneys' task force, which raised $20,000 from local lawyers and law firms.

Although Brill and LSC are popular with many children's groups and political liberals, others - including public social agencies and education administrators - often view them as obstructions to orderly governmental procedures and instruments for putting violent youngsters back on the street to endanger society.

``I've been called the Rose Bird [of the children's field],'' says Brill. (Ms. Bird, who up to recently served as chief justice of California's Supreme Court, was removed from office by popular vote for consistently opposing the death penalty and ostensibly allowing dangerous criminals to roam the streets.)

A key LSC weapon is to seek injunctions to force the deinstitutionalization of youngsters it doesn't believe should be in custody, and to mandate scholastic services for children with special needs.

This fall, the group's chief counsel, Sheila Brogna, will argue a case before the United States Supreme Court - urging the justices to enforce a section of a federal statute that requires the State of California to provide continued educational services for handicapped youngsters.

The matter involves two emotionally disturbed and learning-impaired teen-agers who were expelled from school for disrupting classes. The state Department of Education had sought a waiver from these requirements.

This case has been in the courts since 1980. The litigants - represented by LSC - now are young adults. The students' claim has been upheld by lower courts.

And Brill and Ms. Brogna say this Supreme Court test will be significant for disabled children's learning rights across the nation.

LSC cases don't usually attract this high level of judicial attention. Most, however, are no less significant.

The legal advocates were recently successful in finding a home for an AIDS-stricken teen-ager and her baby - avoiding possible public legal action against the mother. They were also able to help a girl living in a mental health unit to find other, less confining quarters.

In addition, LSC, through its advocacy program, has assisted several infant victims of molestation.

A major effort of LSC is to obtain court orders to stop the hospitalization of children who, in Brill's opinion, don't need it.

``States like California are turning more and more to the mental health system'' when they feel there is no other satisfactory placement alternative for the child, she says. ``When we force their [the public authorities'] hand, they usually find a place.''

``Kids are not routinely afforded the rights of adults not to be restrained or medicated,'' according to Brill.

LSC has, of late, set up a victims'-rights project to aid sexually abused youngsters. Services include efforts to help decrease the fear and trauma children who have been molested may experience in the legal process; assisting child victims to acquire compensatory funds and aftercare; and legal protection, such as restraining orders against alleged adult perpetrators.

Many LSC clients walk in off the street. Some are referred by other lawyers or friends and neighbors. None are turned away for lack of funds.

Brill wants to encourage other lawyers to start offices, like LSC, across the nation.

``Kids need overall help. And they are not getting it,'' she says.

``Lawyers must learn to do for kids what they do for adults,'' she adds.

``Children need safe homes and adequate schooling, health care, and child care ... and maximum accountability by public agencies.

``It would be fantastic if kids didn't need lawyers,'' the child advocate stresses. ``The average, happy, well-fed, well-cared-for 10-year-old doesn't come here.''

Legal Services for Children Inc. 149 Ninth St., San Francisco, CA 94103.

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