This article is written by Senior Editor for Floridabar.org, Gary Blankenship. You can find his article here.
In 2012, a 17-year-old girl was arrested in Hillsborough County along with an adult and faced felony charges in adult court.
Rosemary Armstrong, who had won the Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award that year, had just set up Crossroads for Florida Kids to coordinate pro bono representation for foster kids in the dependency and juvenile courts.
At the new organization’s first training session, 13th Circuit Judge Ralph Stoddard was one of the speakers and he said help was needed for the girl, who was in his “crossover” court, that is a child in the dependency system who was now facing criminal charges.
“This particular girl was a trafficking victim and she was coerced into doing all sort of things and one of those was a felony [committed with an adult],” Armstrong recalled.
She assigned two volunteer attorneys to work with the public defender on the case, “and within a few days she was released….”
“When one of our other attorneys represented her on the dependency side, she had a very successful time in foster care, she was reunited with her mother and I understand she’s doing well,” Armstrong said.
“It was really a pretty moving experience, to be able to help a child who had been put in this terrible position to get into a better situation,” said Katherine Yanes, a partner at Kynes Markman Felman in Tampa and who was one of the two attorneys who took the criminal case.
“We were able to help resolve her situation and in doing so, really learned about just how many kids there are in the system who really through no fault of their own have been given a very difficult start in life and really had the cards stacked against them from day one. As a result, they end up in the system and can use our help,” she continued. “Since that time, my partners and I generally have at least one Crossroads client at any time. We’ve taken a number of cases at this point.”
She added, “Parental abandonment, lack of any guidance, lack of any supervision, kids kind of raising themselves is something we have seen in just about all of the cases we have been involved in.”
The foster care system, both in dependency and delinquency cases has dedicated caseworkers, Yanes said, but is simply overwhelmed by the numbers.
Crossroads, an attempt to unstack the deck, began with Armstrong’s continuing quest to do pro bono work. A graduate of Columbia Law School, she married her husband, Sandy Weinberg, then a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
Six years later with two young children, they moved to Tampa. When the children were older, Armstrong began working part time in a private law firm and later for county government.
Having a third child at 42, ended her paid outside work but looking to stay active, she contacted Bay Area Legal Services and began taking pro bono cases. That evolved into a long relationship, including with Armstrong serving 20 years on the board of directors and three terms as president.
In 2012, after winning the Tobias Simon Award, Armstrong, then 64, and at an age when many might begin thinking of retirement, became intrigued when Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, launched a campaign to get local pro bono programs to help foster kids.
Armstrong, her husband, and Sandy Allison set up Crossroads for Florida Kids in response, which Armstrong, with three children now grown and gone, runs out of a spare bedroom in her house with the closets stuffed with case files. In addition to administering the program, she also represents kids referred to Crossroads.
(Besides the Tobias Simon Award, Armstrong’s efforts have been recognized by the ABA’s Criminal Justice Section, which gave her the Livingston Hall Juvenile Justice Award in 2018, and she has been named as a Luminary by the Junior League of Florida.)
“Crossroads’ goal is to help improve the lives of vulnerable children in state care,” according to a brochure the program has put out. “When they get into difficult situations that could easily lead to long term negative outcomes, our pro bono attorneys meet their young clients at these crossroads in their lives and, through counseling and advocacy, help them to persevere and to succeed.”
The attorneys represent children in dependency court, and some also face criminal charges. They also act as attorneys ad litem for clients in delinquency and criminal cases.
Armstrong amplified on Crossroads’ activities during recent testimony before the Task Force on the Distribution of IOTA Funds: “From its start, judges have referred kids in foster care with the most complex issues to Crossroads for Florida Kids for representation — crossover kids with delinquency charges, human trafficking victims, kids with babies, kids with severe trauma, kids with intellectual disabilities. Through our advice and counsel, sometimes over many years, we help them succeed.”
Two attorneys are assigned to a case, which in many instances has an experienced attorney paired with a newer attorney, which allows for mentoring. Crossroads provides regular training and also liability insurance, although Armstrong notes there has never been a claim against one of the program’s attorneys.
The mentoring and training are important to Armstrong, who said she felt lost when she started taking family law cases, especially involving domestic violence victims, from BALS. But she said experienced family law attorney Stephen Sessums helped her gain the knowledge that she later passed to others.
“We get a call that there’s a child who’s come to court, we have attorneys who signed up to take a day. They come to court, they meet with the child and the public defender [if it’s a criminal case],” Armstrong said. “They spend time with the child, they can find out things that can be very, very helpful. Perhaps the child is homeless, perhaps the child is not in school, perhaps the child is in a poor family that could use services ….”
“We visit our clients at their home [a practice halted at the moment by the pandemic]. We see where they are staying, develop a trusting relationship that they don’t have with other people.”
In criminal cases, the attorneys make sure if probation is part of the outcome that it is realistic.
“If it’s a family that has no transportation and the child is ordered to attend a class — it could be one time, it could be for several weeks — they’re not going to be able to do it and they will pick up a violation of probation,” Armstrong said. “The attorney ad litem can find out about the child’s life, find out about the deficiencies, find out the potential for picking up a violation of probation if the probation terms are too onerous.”
Stephen Todd, who works in the Hillsborough County Attorney’s Office, has worked with Crossroads since its inception and estimated he’s been involved in about 15 cases. Before that, he had volunteered as a guardian ad litem.
“There have been great outcomes and disappointing outcomes. The disappointing outcomes are where you’ve been involved in a kid’s life for a time, usually a year or two as the cases make their way through the system,” he said. “Not seeing a tangible change in a kid’s life, that’s disappointing.
“On other cases, you see a spark in the kids, and you can see a hope there can be a change in the kid’s life in spite of their circumstances. These are the cases that bring you back for more.”
The effort alone can help, even if the final outcome isn’t what the child wanted, he said.
“I think they see when you’re fighting for them, some of them have never had anyone fight for them, and that’s extremely powerful,” Todd said.
He recalled a case in which he and another attorney represented a 16-year-old boy who had run away from home after his mother had forced his sister into prostitution to pay for the mother’s drug habit. The youth was doing well in school, held down a job despite having to walk to work in all kinds of weather. The boy sought to be declared emancipated by the courts, something Todd knew was a long shot.
“We put on this full-blown evidentiary hearing to present in good faith the argument why our client should be emancipated,” he said. “The judge listened attentively, but denied the request, which was probably right.”
But his client responded to having “his own attorney who was trying to help him. That was a lot of fun to see.”
Todd’s favorite case, he said, was one he cited in 2018 when he accepted the Tobias Simon Award. He represented Justin, a 17-year-old whose parents lost their parental rights. He helped Justin navigate the foster system and assisted when he was charged with driving without a license — a learning disability made it difficult for him to get the license.
“I represented him for a couple of years. This kid had quite a spark,” Todd said. “He wound up going to school, getting a job, and making something of himself.”
Both Todd and Yanes encourage other lawyers to get involved with pro bono programs like Crossroads.
“I would certainly encourage any attorney to get involved, because the need is tremendous,” said Yanes, who won The Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Award for the 13th Circuit in 2017. “There are so many kids who need help.
“Attorneys are going to receive training and have a lot of resources available to them, and also be working with another attorney who is a little more familiar with the ropes.”
“Start slow, take a case that’s not too complicated where you can get a sense of how this system works,” Todd said. “The most important thing to start off with is establish a rapport with the kid, your client. Just sit down and have a conversation. Look him or her in the eye and say, ‘I’m your lawyer.’ Listen to what he or she has to say.”
“It’s such a privilege to be part of Rosemary’s groups. We’re all going to look back at the end of our careers at what we did and this is something I’ll be glad I did when I’m 75 and finished with the practice of law.”
About 130 attorneys participate in Crossroads, Armstrong said, and two are on call on any given day if a judge calls or other referral is made. She also gets dependency and juvenile dockets to check for possible clients.
For 2018, 113 attorneys reported spending 5,757 pro bono hours through the program on 62 dependency cases, 27 extended delinquency cases, and as attorneys ad litem for three youths in the criminal division, and for 2019, the number was around 100 attorneys reporting 5,302 hours, she said.
Through 2018, the program represented a total of 261 children in dependency, delinquency, and criminal cases, Armstrong said, adding “It’s much more by now.”
In 2013, Crossroads took over a program started by Attorney General Ashley Moody, then a 13th Circuit judge, that provided an attorney for any juvenile in a delinquency hearing where the youth faces a trial or penalty and they were unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.
With a small overhead, Crossroads operates on donations and a small grant from the Hillsborough County Bar Association Foundation, which has also supplied volunteers. Any other funds needed are provided by Armstrong and her husband.
“We meet foster kids at their crossroads, when they come into foster care because they’ve been abused, abandoned, and neglected,” Armstrong said. “Studies show that kids who are in foster care are much more likely…to pick up delinquency charges and have a criminal charge and go to prison.
“To the extent we can help them avoid that, we’re going to help them be more successful.”