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Project Helps Palm Beach County Teens Learn Financial Facts of Life

When young adults head off to college or join the workforce, their financial priorities often revolve around clothes, cars and cell phones. If they’re lucky, they have parents who teach them how to set up a monthly budget and save for the future. But turning 18 can be a daunting challenge for children in foster care, who face a multitude of adult challenges — often without adequate preparation.    

That’s why a team of Greenberg Traurig attorneys teamed up with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County in an Independent Living Review (ILR) pro bono project that is changing young lives for the better.

“We are very proud of this initiative, which is the signature project for our Palm Beach offices,” said shareholder Holly Skolnick, who leads the firm’s pro bono efforts. “Our partners and associates are assisting these young adults with their legal issues, while building the skills they need to live independently.”

An Important Project

 Bridget Berry

Bridget Ann Berry, shareholder in GT’s West Palm Beach office, said the Honorable Peter Blanc, Chief Judge of the 15th Judicial Circuit,  initiated the ILR hearing procedure in Palm Beach County to assure that statutory requirements are efficiently and effectively met.  The procedure is designed to coordinate limited  resources for the benefit of the youths, and to assure that children “aging out” of foster care have the financial “survival skills” to succeed.  The focus is on education, employment and financial responsibility, together with developing a safety net of resources, while handling any legal issues.
“Attorneys,  paralegals  and support staff from our West Palm Beach and Boca Raton offices have embraced the project,” Berry said.  “Over time, nearly 20 GT professionals have advocated on behalf of ILR clients, to support them in their transition into adulthood and place them on a path to success.”

The firm launched this pro bono initiative in early 2010, after being introduced to the need by Shahar Pasch, a former GT public interest fellow now working as an attorney in the Juvenile Advocacy Project (JAP) for the Palm Beach County Legal Aid Society.  “We saw that these kids were being let out into the world without the skills they needed to survive and support themselves,” said Skolnick.  Pasch, Michelle Hankey, who heads up JAP, and Bill Booth trained and continue to mentor GT attorneys committed to the ILR project. Ashley Ortagus Wilson, a current GT fellow working specifically in the Legal Advocacy for Minor Mothers Project with JAP, also works with GT attorneys, advocating on behalf of teenage moms.
In addition to GT shareholders, Jonathan Chane (of counsel), Daniel Rosenthal (of counsel), Jason Okleshen (associate), Travis Chapin (associate) and Emily Cann (law clerk)  are dedicated to the project.  “As you might surmise, 16- to  20-year-olds  who have been in the foster care system generally have an array of legal issues and problems that need to be addressed,” Berry said. “For the review process to work, advocates were needed to represent the youths, and Legal Aid was finding it very difficult to enlist pro bono attorneys. That’s where we came in.  GT’s “3-D” associates were up to the challenge.  Shareholders and associates have worked together with staff to represent each of our clients on an individual basis, to provide as smooth a transition into adulthood as possible, and to give them the greatest opportunity to be happy and productive as young adults.” 

The success stories are many. “One of my clients recently graduated from high school and was accepted into college with a scholarship,” said Chane. “He is trying out for the band, and is confident and ready to succeed.”  Another GT client is excelling academically in high school, excelling in the ROTC program, and seeking a part-time job in preparation for college.  

Okleshen notes that participation in the project has been professionally and personally rewarding, honing skills  in diverse areas. Through the ILR review process, GT attorneys regularly work with judges, Palm Beach County School District officials, the Department of Children and Families, the state’s attorneys, case workers, volunteer mentors and guardians ad litem and their attorneys in juvenile, probate and, sometimes, criminal court.   Said Berry, “In addition to handling any legal issues, we work with others on the transition team to identify and cultivate education and training needs and, ultimately, career interests and employment goals. “

On May 7, the Palm Beach County Legal Aid Society recognized the firm’s “dedication to pro bono service and the disadvantaged youth in the community” through the ILR project at its 23rd annual Pro Bono Recognition Evening and Auction.  “The key to the success of the ILR pro bono project is the depth of the partnership that has formed between the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and Greenberg Traurig,” said Robert A. Bertisch, executive director, Legal Aid Society.  “There is an open line of communication between the two offices.  Greenberg Traurig attorneys receive training and support from the Legal Aid Society attorneys who regularly practice in the juvenile court. This partnership has led to exemplary, innovative advocacy by Greenberg Traurig attorneys on behalf of the children they represent.”

Building Life Skills

 Jason H. Okleshen, Bridget A. Berry and Travis R. Chapin

Unlike adolescents whose parents are still making major financial decisions, foster care teens are often faced with important decisions about how to handle their money. Some receive funds from state or federal programs, such as Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). This is often in the form of a trust fund that becomes available when the teen turns 18 or 19.   If they choose to continue their education, most are eligible for payment of in-state tuition,  and there may be other scholarship opportunities available.  Others have assets from inheritances or insurance, for example. 

 “One of our shareholders recently guided clients through a very difficult maze,” Berry said.  “They had inherited a home, but with a daunting mortgage payment.  There were issues relating to a non-paying tenant, a foreclosing lender and alternate housing options.”  Health care, education, knowledge of resources, and assuring that the youth has necessary health insurance, and a prescription, vision and dental plan in place are other critical steps.

“It starts with the building blocks: budgeting, saving, maintaining a bank account and developing money management skills,” Berry said.  “They need to learn about the differences between debit and credit cards, for instance, and how quickly the interest on credit can add up.”  Without financial skills, it’s difficult for them to achieve their goals, let alone manage their lives. “These youths don’t have a parental safety net,” said Berry. 

“Similarly, we assure that they have the tools to get a job: birth certificate, state-issued ID, social security card, “ Berry said. “They learn how to prepare a resume, and how to complete an effective job application.”   Because buying a car for work or school is a priority for many foster care teens, the GT volunteers often walk their young clients through that process. Berry said, “To buy a car, they need to have a down payment and a budget for the monthly loan payment. They also need to pay for car insurance and maintenance.  To lower insurance costs, a learner’s permit and safe driving experience before aging out is important.  There is a lot of planning.”  In any case, the need for a car — like the desire for a cell phone — provides a motivating tool for learning the financial facts of life. 

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