Kids Matter Inc. was founded in 2000 to help abused and neglected youth in the greater Milwaukee area. It is a small agency with a big mission.
Kids Matter is the only legal services agency providing non-GAL civil legal services within the child welfare system and for informal kinship families in Wisconsin. In addition to providing direct legal services for children and families, Kids Matter provides free legal information to the public and technical advice to attorneys and professionals. In an effort to keep up with growing demand, the Kids Matter website includes a guide to legal guardianship that has been used by caregivers in all 72 Wisconsin counties. As youth turn to the web for information first, Kids Matter has also developed “know your rights” guides for youth in foster care.
According to current census data, 20,000 children in the Milwaukee area are raised by non-parent caregivers such as grandparents and other relatives, family friends and older siblings. Of these 20,000 children, 2,500 are in formal foster care. Most caregiving of needy children takes place outside of formal systems, with little help available to caregiving families. Their clients are overwhelmingly poor. The vast majority of children raised in families without the biological parent present receive no financial support or services other than public benefits. While children in foster care have a guardian ad litem appointed to help determine physical placement, this appointment does not extend to matters of well-being, benefits, or pathways out of poverty. Through its staff and dedicated pro bono network, Kids Matter provides direct legal civil representation that addresses issues of family and guardianship, foster care, health care, disability rights, consumer rights and bankruptcy, immigration, discrimination, advanced directives, education, and housing.
In the last decade, financial and social pressures have increased the number of children who need help from extended family members. AARP reports that 1 in 10 children will live with a grandparent at some point in their life. Kids Matter has faced extraordinary pressure to help caregiving families across Wisconsin.
What kinds of legal issues affect foster and kinship families? The most common request for help is resolving issues relating to guardianship or other legal options for the child. Medical, education, housing, public benefits and legal systems assume that a parent is on hand to make a decision for the child. When that parent is not available, caregivers have to jump through many hoops to obtain needed healthcare or special education services, or assume full legal responsibility for the child. Kids Matter helps families navigate the options.
Children who have been passed from home to home are particularly vulnerable. Not only are they at risk of further abuse, but they often contend with very high rates of ancillary crimes such as identity theft. Too often, a child’s social security number is given to secure a lease, a phone contract or utility service. Courts do not yet screen to make sure that common filings such as eviction proceedings are filed against adult defendants. It is sad but common to find 8 year olds with eviction judgements on CCAP.
Volunteer attorneys are vital to Kids Matters’ efforts to help children. Foley & Lardner attorney Michael C. Lueder was named the State Bar of Wisconsin 2014 Pro Bono Attorney of the Year for his work with a Kids Matter case. As Lueder noted in his recent article for Wisconsin Lawyer, “The Children’s Court deals with fundamental human rights.” Lueder says “My Children’s Court matter is the most important I have handled in my 27 years of practice.”
According to a study of Wisconsin youth who turned 18 in foster care, 40% were homeless, incarcerated, or victims of serious crime within 18 months of leaving foster care. Kids Matter Executive Director Susan Conwell says that her greatest joy is the number of youth who have launched very successful careers with a little help. Jessica Holden had big dreams as a high school student. She was in several foster homes and wanted help with ACT test prep. The child welfare system said academic success was not a safety issue and refused the funds for both the ACT class and the extra school fees for International Baccalaureate testing. Kids Matter intervened. Holden received a full scholarship to Northwestern University. Today the child welfare system regularly supports academic test preparation and advanced coursework fees.
“We are so proud of our youth who have grown up to have a voice in the future of child welfare,” says Conwell. “From educating legislators about adoption disruption to raising funds to help other foster youth, our young people are leading the way.”