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The only doubt in Katherine R. Locker’s crusade on behalf of children easily overlooked — or just plain ignored — was whether she should advocate as a teacher or a lawyer. So she did both. Four years ago, the one-time Yonkers special education instructor and Harvard Law School graduate formalized her mission by creating a program within the Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society: the Kathryn A. McDonald Education Advocacy Project, named for the late presiding judge of the New York City Family Court. The purpose of the program is to identify the educational needs of disabled youngsters in foster care and to ensure they get services mandated by state and federal law. Locker, 32, conceived her program while a Harvard Law student intern at Legal Aid. With the encouragement of Monica Drinane, attorney in charge of the juvenile division, the concept progressed from internship to a two-year fellowship in 1998 underwritten by Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. But Locker was hardly done. “This is the project that will never end,” as Locker puts it. Working with Legal Aid attorneys in the juvenile division, Locker’s small staff looks specifically to the developmental and educational needs of youngsters during child protection proceedings in Family Court. She and her colleagues work with law guardians, judges, social workers, teachers and school administrators, foster and birth parents to secure special public school services mandated by state and federal law. Litigation is sometimes necessary, typically when families of disabled children must sue the New York Board of Education to recover money spent for private tutoring, in lieu of the schools’ legal responsibility. Locker primarily acts as the supervising attorney of the project, in conjunction with her staff of three lawyers, two paralegals, a supervising social worker and a law school intern. She calls on pro bono help as necessary. In battling for the rights of her young clients — so many frustrated by a literal inability to speak for themselves, so many abandoned by parents unable to cope with profound learning problems — Locker uses weapons including negotiation, litigation and no small amount of charm. “I would do anything for Katherine,” said F. Herbert Prem Jr., retired partner of Whitman, Breed, Abbott & Morgan (now Winston & Strawn). “She is simply the most vibrant young person I’ve ever known.” Indeed, Prem was the first of several prominent senior lawyers who volunteered to join Locker’s crusade. With a wealth of experience in managing budgets and attorneys, and coaxing busy lawyers to do the right thing from time to time, Prem became a valuable ally in the important business of raising private money to support the enforcement of unfunded legal mandates. “Foundations don’t give you a blank check for the next 25 years, they expect that their contribution will be seed money,” said Prem. “So it’s difficult. Our plan was to raise private funds for three or four years, then the idea was that the state would take it over. Well, there’s no money for the state to take over anything.” FUNDRAISING MARATHON Locker’s annual budget consists of foundation grants and private contributions totaling about $482,000, with nearly $100,000 of in-kind support from the Juvenile Rights Division of Legal Aid in the form of office space and services. The juvenile division is itself funded by the New York State Office of Court Administration. Last year, said Locker, she had a breakthrough in her long-term effort at revenue continuity, with a $25,000 check from OCA. “Foundations have been incredibly generous, but it’s not a source of permanent funding,” said Locker. “So it was really important that OCA was willing to invest in us. Our hope is that ultimately OCA will sustain us.” Meanwhile, she said, “Every year, we just start all over again raising money.” Susan B. Plum, director of the Skadden Fellowship Foundation and one of Locker’s close advisors in the art of fundraising, is confident of her graduate’s ability in the art of asking for donations. “People give to people, not projects,” said Plum. “Her clients are not very high up on the hierarchy of power. I mean — come on, disabled kids in foster care? And yet Katherine insists that they get a quality education. It’s an issue of justice, that’s how Katherine sees it. She’s the real thing.” Locker’s motivation comes from personal experience in growing up with a developmentally disabled sister. “My parents were able to navigate the system, but it was very stressful,” said Locker. “What happens when it’s a family that simply doesn’t know how to access the system?” Among Locker’s influences in her work is another family with the socio-economic wherewithal to help an autistic child overcome barriers to proper schooling — Ron and Judy Barron of Milford, Pa., and their now 41-year-old son Sean, a journalist in Ohio. In 1992, Judy and Sean Barron co-authored “There’s a Boy in Here,” a Simon & Schuster book recently re-released. It is a memoir of Sean’s long struggle to emerge from autism, and his parents’ frustrations with schools and courts. Barron, who with her son regularly tours the country on speaking engagements, said parental frustrations are worse than ever and many more children are, in fact, left behind. “There used to be services, and people just had to find out where and when. Now it’s all combative, with people having to hire attorneys — people with very little money,” said Barron in a telephone interview. “The lawyers have to fight the school system to comply with their own rules, and the school administrators put up every roadblock they can because of budget cuts.” SECURING SERVICES Nonetheless, Locker persists by understanding the inclination of society to overlook her clients, but by keeping her clients’ interest at the forefront. “Quieter disabilities do not always get identified,” she explained. “If kids aren’t causing trouble, they’re often not the focus of anyone’s attention. We try to push for the system to think creatively. In our older children, we see that what starts out as an educational problem becomes a behavior problem.” Too typically, Locker said, young clients go home to foster care after school, only to weep at their inability to do homework because they have not had necessary adaptive public school instruction that would permit them to read. This despite requirements under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Article 89 of the New York Education Law. “We’re able to negotiate, but it helps when people know if they don’t come up with a solution we’ll litigate,” said Locker. Drinane, to whom Locker reports at the juvenile division of Legal Aid, has often accompanied Locker to such meetings. In so doing, she has come up with the definition of success for a crusading young lawyer. “Katherine has an ability to communicate her passion in a very unassuming way,” said Drinane. “And that’s because it’s clear that it’s not about her, it’s about her commitment to clients that her project serves.”

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