Palm Beach County is fortunate to have a number of public-private partnerships that enrich the economic, educational and social opportunities for its residents. One such partnership is the successful collaboration between the members of the private bar and the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County. This partnership was established in 1949 and continues to this day. What began as a small committee of the Palm Beach County Bar Association dedicated to providing free legal services to the indigent and working poor through volunteer attorneys has grown into a nonprofit law firm of 100 full-time staff who serve annually over 8,000 of the less fortunate members of our community through its 21 projects. These programs are designed to give the underserved in our community a voice in the judicial system, whereby ensuring equal access to justice for our county’s most vulnerable residents, including families in crisis, the elderly, individuals with disabilities, persons living with HIV/AIDS, victims of domestic violence, homeless, the working poor, undocumented immigrants, military veterans, indigent individuals with no local family, relative caregivers, victims of wage dispute, and foster children and youth.
Throughout the years, Legal Aid’s growth and success would not have been possible without the unwavering support both professionally and financially of the private attorneys and law firms in our community. Today over 2,500 attorneys participate in Legal Aid’s Pro Bono Project, serving 1,200 clients each year and contributing over $400,000 to Legal Aid’s programs.
One story that demonstrates how private attorneys partnering with Legal Aid staff can create a meaningful change in an individual’s life, is Frankie’s story.
Frankie was 15 when Melissa Duncan, a staff attorney with Legal Aid’s juvenile advocacy project, was appointed to represent him. Frankie was a victim of egregious physical abuse and his mother was arrested and sentenced to prison. Frankie was placed in foster care, but the years of abuse had resulted in behavioral problems in both school and the community. When Melissa was appointed to represent Frankie, he already had pending delinquency cases, as well as several school suspensions. He was facing sentencing to a juvenile residential program as well as suffering from severe depression.
Melissa located a group of professionals to begin working with Frankie, and with their assistance got him placed in a specialized therapeutic group home where he was provided therapy, medication management and independent living services. Melissa was able to enlist criminal law defense attorney Kai Li Fouts to represent Frankie on his delinquency charges on a pro bono basis. Working as a team, Melissa and Kai Li were able to keep Frankie out of the detention center and on probation. Melissa was then able to secure special education services for Frankie, including a self-contained classroom, behavioral intervention plan and on-site therapy. Frankie’s grades became A’s and B’s without any disciplinary referrals or suspensions and he was eventually reintegrated into a mainstream classroom setting.
Today, Frankie plays football at his high school, has wonderful grades, has completed probation, lives in a group home and was recently awarded the Boys Town Youth of the Year Award.
Frankie was truly an inspiration for Legal Aid, and reminds us that with the help of community partners and the private bar, we can make a significant difference in a child’s life. Bob Bertisch