When Jackie first saw baby Robert in a hospital ward nearly 12 years ago, she thought he wouldn't survive long.
The 3-week-old infant, who was born premature and with a serious heart condition, weighed only 4 pounds. He was so shriveled and fragile-looking that the new foster mother was afraid to cradle him in her arms.
Still, Jackie brought him home. She fed him vitamin-enriched formula around the clock, and he grew bigger and stronger. Her heart swelled when he looked up at her one day and cooed "ma-ma" for the first time.
Last fall, after years of trying, Jackie was finally able to adopt Robert, with the aid of the Public Counsel's Vulnerable Youth Assistance Project.
"They have helped me tremendously," said Jackie, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her family's privacy. "If it wasn't for Public Counsel.... I didn't have the means to hire an attorney."
Jenny Weisz, the legal aid group's directing attorney for the project, guided Jackie through reams of paperwork and legal filings. At court hearings, Weisz presented Jackie's case to the judge. The lawyer also encouraged social workers to cut through the bureaucratic red tape and process Robert's case more quickly.
When a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge finally granted the adoption last September, "tears were flowing everywhere," Weisz recalled.
Although Robert has lived primarily with Jackie since birth, changing their status from foster to adoptive parent and child was important not just as a symbol of their bond but also for the parental custody rights it conferred.
"When you're a foster child, you go from home to home," said Robert, who used to have nightmares about being taken away by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.
Public Counsel, the nation's largest public interest law firm, has helped more than 4,500 foster kids since its adoption program began in 1998. This year, the project received $15,000 from the Los Angeles Times Holiday Campaign, which raises money for nonprofit groups in Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
The money, which helps pay staff salaries, is well-leveraged because the employees coordinate hundreds of volunteer lawyers, paralegals and other professionals who provide services for free, said Dan Grunfeld, executive director of the group. Of the project's $700,000 budget, only 7% comes from the government, the remainder from donations and grants.
A second program within the project provides transition aid to foster youths about to enter adulthood, some of whom find themselves suddenly homeless after leaving the county's care. A third program reaches out to poor children in middle and high school who face such problems as violence at home or insufficient government benefits.
With Public Counsel's continuing legal aid, Jackie is now hoping to adopt Marisol, an 11-year-old learning-disabled girl she took in as an infant shortly after she brought Robert home.
"It will be the most precious Christmas present I can receive, to totally have adopted my children," Jackie said.
HOW TO GIVE
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