Lawyer takes on children’s life-and-death issues

Colman McCarthy, National Catholic Reporter

In late 1989, I took some 30 students on a field trip to visit death row inmates waiting to be killed in Virginia’s Mecklenburg state prison. Among the group was Amy Harfeld, a senior in my peace studies class at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda, Md. Sociable and intellectually alert, Amy relished her conversations with the inmates but was troubled to learn that few had lawyers for their appeals. Virginia provides one public defender for one appeal, but after that — get lost.

Learning about the injustice — exonerating evidence often turns up on second and third appeals — was one of the reasons Harfeld studied sociology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, graduating summa cum laude in 1994. She joined Teach for America, serving mostly minority students in Los Angeles middle schools. Coming back East, she earned a law degree at the City University of New York, a top-tier school for public interest law.

Today, Harfeld is a seasoned staff attorney in Washington for the Children’s Advocacy Institute, a nonprofit founded in 1989 at the University of San Diego School of Law. Its valuable work includes litigation to protect children from abuse at home, and monitoring courts and legislatures that the legal rights of the young are assured.

Considering that 1,500-3,000 children die annually from abuse and neglect and some 400,000 are in foster care, the work of the institute looks to be unending. Its recent publication “Shame on U.S.” reports, “These children are part of a concealed and faceless group — one that lacks voting power, campaign contribution leverage or lobbying presence. … Almost everything that happens to these children is cloaked in endemic secrecy.”

If an afternoon with the condemned on death row nudged Harfeld to study the ways of courts and lawyers in capital cases, her three years in Teach for America got her thinking about law school.

“I had the sad experience of observing several students who had clearly been the victims of child abuse,” she told me. “As I fulfilled my responsibilities as a mandated reporter, and eventually testified in one of the more horrific cases, a light bulb went off. I felt I could be more effective in working to improve the lives of these children as an attorney and policy advocate than as a classroom teacher.”

Much of Harfeld’s work involves lobbying to increase federal funding for federal or state protective laws. Professionally, it also means competing for media attention, of a kind that would give children’s life-and-death issues equal footing with immigration reform, guns laws and terrorism.

March 17 saw the release of a comprehensive report titled “Within Our Reach” from the U.S. government’s Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. On March 18, not a syllable about the report appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. The Times found space to relay that President Barack Obama was telling donors to back Hillary Clinton. The Post went with another how-to-stop-Trump story and the Journal headlined “John Kasich’s Challenge.”

Readers of the country’s three leading newspapers could read nothing of the commission’s findings, that fatalities among black children are two and half times higher than for white children, or that between 2001 and 2010, twice as many children died of abuse and neglect than soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The commission’s chairman, David Sanders, wrote in the report, “Child protection is perhaps the only field where some child deaths are assumed to be inevitable, no matter how hard we work to stop them.”

Working with progressives in the Senate and House, including Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Harfeld has enjoyed legislative wins. A recent one? Passage of the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, which, she says, “requires agencies to provide children leaving foster care with a copy of their birth certificate, a Social Security card, a copy of medical records and a driver’s license or ID. Change like this, though slow and incremental, really does happen if you work hard and long enough.”

In the many years I’ve known Harfeld, I’ve never seen her energy flag nor have I heard a weary word that the headwinds are too many or a sigh that she should have gone into corporate law and the enriching world of billable hours.

Perhaps it’s because she can take refuge in a loving marriage with two ever-peppy children or perhaps it’s the emotional satisfaction of knowing that if she wasn’t doing the work of child advocacy, much less of it would get done.

[Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C. His recent book is Teaching Peace: Students Exchange Letters With Their Teacher.] [Amy Harfeld is currently consulting with Every Child Matters regarding implementation of recommendations from the Commission to End Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities report.]

This story originally appeared in the May 6-19 print issue of the National Catholic Reporter