SANTA ANA — Children's books spill out of the bookshelf in the law firm's waiting room. The chief attorney's office is decorated not with stuffy diplomas and certificates, but with dozens of photographs, from the Marx brothers to Richard Nixon sobbing on the shoulder of Dwight Eisenhower.
Not the usual trappings of a thriving law practice, but Harold LaFlamme is an attorney with unusual clients. Some come in with broken bones and bruises, others with injuries even more repugnant. Many are not old enough to pronounce their lawyer's name, or even know what an attorney is.
With a passion to protect children from the failings of adults, LaFlamme holds Orange County Juvenile Court's contract to represent children who are abused, neglected or abandoned. For the past 10 years, he has handled an estimated 12,000 "300" cases--shorthand for a section of the state welfare and institutions code for these dependents of the court--providing an independent legal voice for the wee ones traveling through the legal system.
LaFlamme has handled many high-profile cases, but few have captured more headlines than the one that kept him in court last week. LaFlamme's littlest and currently most famous client is Baby Boy Johnson, the child born Wednesday to surrogate mother Anna L. Johnson, who is fighting the child's genetic parents for custody. (The baby went home to the genetic parents, Mark and Crispina Calvert, on Saturday, after lawyers agreed the couple could have the newborn until a custody hearing next Thursday.) Johnson is the first surrogate mother to seek custody and parental rights to a child not genetically linked to her.
LaFlamme says he does not know yet who he will recommend to get custody of the infant, whom he jokingly calls Bubba. (With custody undecided, the newborn has no legal name, and Bubba "is as good as anything," LaFlamme said, cracking a grin.) And LaFlamme acts as if he has little stomach for the behavior of the people involved in the case, which has sparked a media frenzy.
"I'm surprised they're not selling tickets," he said during an interview Thursday, just hours after attorneys for Johnson and the Calverts held dueling press conferences.
"I have a great deal of compassion for that baby. I worry about the judgment of some of the adults involved," LaFlamme said. "What I want for him is a stress-free environment, one without split custody, if that is possible.
"I hope to get him through this minefield of litigation intact and into a nurturing environment."
If that sounds like he wants to cut through the legal quagmire to deal with the basic question of what is best for the child, that's what others in the court system say LaFlamme excels at.
"He has a real ability to cut through the issues and get to what's really important in a child's case," said William G. Steiner, executive director of the Orangewood Foundation, who has worked with abused and neglected children for 30 years. He is the Johnson baby's court-appointed guardian until custody is decided.
Still, on the surface, Harold LaFlamme, 49, seems an unlikely person for his own job. Tall and lanky, his deep voice and frank language about the horrible child abuse he has seen give him a gruff edge. He is a voracious reader and an amateur archeologist who goes off for digs in the Mojave Desert to get away from the intensity of his practice.
And he is a former arms dealer in the Middle East (he prefers to say he was involved in "the marketing of sophisticated weapons systems"), a job that helped prepare him for a career in law. Yes, he said, there are similarities.
"You negotiate with people who can execute you. You learn to be diplomatic and come up with solutions," he said. "And you try to do it and get out intact."
But he gave up that job because he "didn't like the treachery and betrayal in that business," he said. "So I got into law, where there is no treachery and betrayal," LaFlamme added wryly.
A lawyer at 35, he began by doing juvenile criminal work, "an area where there was a vacuum of lawyers," and soon moved into representing juveniles in dependency court, where there was also a vacuum. He has obtained the county contract through competitive bidding; his current contract pays his firm $240 for each case, from first appearance in court through initial disposition, plus $200 for each major subsequent review hearing and $240 for the hearing at which the final decision is made.
His office is made up of seven other attorneys and seven investigators, "plus one opening." They are employees; he has no partners because ultimate responsibility lies with him, he said.
LaFlamme's clients most often are victims of abuse, physical or sexual, which he calls "the soft underbelly of our culture." He can rattle off a litany of abuses he has seen, "stuff that would curl your hair." Babies with flat sides to their heads from being left, unheld, in their cribs. Newborns in agony, addicted to cocaine or heroin. Children who have suffered grotesque sexual injuries.