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Standing Up for Children : Volunteers: More than 100 lawyers with the Children's Rights Project of Los Angeles donate their services to help protect youths' legal rights.

June 04, 1991|GARY LIBMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pamela Mohr may have the only law office in Los Angeles with a toy steam engine on the desk and teddy bears beside the law books.

"I wish I could say the toys are just for the kids," says Mohr, "but I can't claim that. A lot of times when I'm going absolutely berserk, I'll take the toys and play with them. It helps keep me sane."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 14, 1991 Home Edition View Part E Page 4 Column 3 View Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Legal rights--The Children's Rights Project of Los Angeles, featured in a June 4 View story, is operated and funded by Public Counsel, the public-interest law office of the Los Angeles County and Beverly Hills Bar assns.

Mohr is founder of the Children's Rights Project of Los Angeles, a group of 150 lawyers who volunteer their services to children in non-criminal cases, including custody. Since 1986, when the project began, lawyers have:

* Reunited five siblings who had been placed in separate foster homes.

* Recovered life insurance benefits that had been stolen by a grandfather.

* Won a court order allowing a girl with a violent, mentally unstable mother to live with relatives out of state.

* Helped a developmentally disabled teen-ager by providing legal assistance to a man seeking to adopt him.

"Kids do have rights, but they aren't self-enforcing," says Mohr, a UCLA School of Law graduate whose parents and grandmother were also attorneys. "You need somebody out there to first of all inform them and second of all to speak up on their behalf."

Mohr's group does just that, and has won praise from the legal and child-care communities.

"Pamela Mohr and the Children's Rights Project have truly been in the forefront of local efforts to focus attention on the legal rights children have or should have throughout the juvenile justice system," says Paul Boland, former presiding judge of the Los Angeles County Juvenile Court and now a Superior Court judge in Pasadena.

"I have absolute respect for Pam Mohr and the work she and the Children's Rights Project do," adds Nina Jaffe, executive director of the Westside Children's Center in Santa Monica. "She has been an invaluable resource in terms of helping us understand the juvenile court process."

The project, says Mohr, covers children in Los Angeles County, where 50,000 children are under court jurisdiction and another 10,000 to 30,000 are homeless or runaways.

Carol Mink received help two years ago when she arrived in Los Angeles at age 17, seeking legal emancipation from her alcoholic, possessive mother who lived in Maryland.

"I'm the type of person who has to be able to make my own mistakes and lead my own life, and she would not let me do that," says Mink, who now lives in Reseda.

"Mother has been an alcoholic. She has been ever since I can remember. She doesn't listen to me. I found it very difficult. I was not allowed to go anywhere. I was not allowed to do anything."

Mink sought advice from a friend who recommended the Children's Rights Project, which accepts about 275 cases a year referred by teachers, social workers and other attorneys. Social workers screen applicants for eligibility into the program, which is open to "any child who has a specific need and requires legal assistance," says social worker Michele Sartell.

Through the project, Mink was put in touch with Universal City attorney Gregory Patterson. She finished high school while working nights in a Sherman Oaks clothing store, where she is now assistant manager.

"Without talking to the Children's Rights Project, I would have never known I could do it," Mink says.

And without the project, she couldn't have afforded to go ahead with the case.

"Financially, she would not have been able to hire an attorney . . .," says Patterson, who normally would have charged $900 to $1,500. "I think she could have appeared on her own behalf, but it's difficult getting through the documents and the maze you have to go through."

Often the children represented are much younger than Mink. Patricia Phillips' client was an 8-year-old girl whose father sought to re-establish contact after serving a prison term for shooting the girl's mother.

Phillips, former president of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., persuaded the court to allow the father visitation only in the presence of a monitor. It took four associates in Phillips' downtown firm to rebuff the father's repeated appeals. They worked up what would have been a $300,000 bill, Phillips said.

"I don't think any of us anticipated we would be taking as much time as we did," she says, "but you don't back off once you start."

Phillips and other attorneys in the project often take cases far afield from their specialties. Los Angeles lawyer David Grunwald, who handles business and product liability cases, stopped distribution of posters and films using developmentally disabled children as unauthorized models.

"It was the highlight of my legal career," says Grunwald. "The day the defendant's counsel called and said they were willing to settle, I had a buzz unparalleled."

Says Steve Nissen, executive director of Public Counsel: "These cases require not only intellectual acumen . . . but a kind of passion that a lot of lawyers lack.

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