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Between 1 and 5 p.m. any day of the week, a litany of requests is funneled through the “Warm Line” — so named because it’s always ringing — at Legal Services for Children. The center, which has been representing San Francisco residents 18 and younger for 27 years, recently received a $150,000 grant from Gov. Gray Davis and the Employment Development Department. The money couldn’t have come at a better time, because the center fields 10 to 20 calls a day from children, teachers and guardians looking for legal help. The bulk of the center’s caseload focuses on guardianships, but the staff also works on dependency issues, emancipations, school discipline hearings, special education matters, benefits and immigration cases. Executive Director Shannan Wilber said the seven lawyers and four social workers on staff come from top law schools and were often at the top of their classes. “They are people that could work anywhere and yet they chose to come here,” she said. The center was the first place to offer free legal advice for children in the country, Wilber said, and is the only center of its kind in San Francisco. It receives calls from all over the city, but mainly from culturally diverse neighborhoods like the Mission, Bayview-Hunters Point and the Tenderloin. And since many of the children that come from those areas do not speak English, almost half of the staff speaks either Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish or Tagalog, Wilber said. “It’s no great mystery where our kids come from,” she said. “We focus on those areas because of the nature of the problems that these kids bring to us, problems that are usually exacerbated by poverty and racism.” Clinical Director Ronald Gutierrez said the kids “have never had a representative, especially someone who is zealously representing them. In terms of building rapport and trust, the fact that we say ‘We’re here for you’ goes a long way with them.” Whether the child is coming in for problems at school or problems at home, the adults that come into contact with these children need counseling of their own. Probate guardianships are common at the center, and the staff depends on a panel of about 40 Bay Area lawyers who donate hours to handle the time-consuming cases. Civil litigation attorney James Colopy is one of those volunteers. In fact, his first court trial came courtesy of Legal Services for Children, where he won a guardianship case in Marin County. Colopy is a partner at Farella Braun & Martel in San Francisco and has been volunteering on the panel for seven years. “It’s a nice diversion from the other cases that I do, and it’s great to be able to provide legal services to someone who needs it and can’t afford it,” he said. The volunteer panel works on about 116 cases and gives about 3,500 hours per year of free legal assistance to children. The center offers a range of services for children and teen-agers such as the HOPE project, which provides assistance to families living with HIV, and the Queer Youth Project, which gives “Know Your Rights” training for youth in schools, shelters and community agencies. The Youth Task Force was formed last year and is led by the youth and community liaison, Victor Damian. “These are the kids that have fallen through the cracks of the system,” said Damian. “We empower these kids by teaching them to advocate for themselves and to give them a voice and some solutions.” The group consists of 14- to 17-year-olds who have been through one or more programs with the Children’s System of Care in San Francisco, a public system for mentally challenged youth. The teens involved in the task force talk about their experiences going through the system and develop solutions on how the CSOC can improve its operations. Attorney Gregory Chen fondly recalls one case of a boy who had come to San Francisco from Cambodia. He was separated from his family and was homeless, living in shelters around the city. In his native country he’d been through war, avoided land mines and narrowly avoided gunfire while he was with his mother. Now, Chen reports, the boy will be heading off for college soon. “When I talk to him now,” Chen said, “I realize that I am sitting in front of a 16-year-old who has overcome incredible odds. It’s just amazing. That is why I do the work.”

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