Research of Note of November 2005

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Foster Children May Be Paying A Price For Attorneys’ Overwhelming Student Loan Debt
Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles (CLC) and the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Home at Last Initiative
Available at

Many of the country’s more than 500,000 foster children lack experienced, stable legal representation, leaving them handicapped and virtually voiceless during the court proceedings that chart their futures, according to this first-ever survey of child advocacy attorneys.

The key reason: Most child advocacy lawyers don’t earn enough to pay down their school loans, the Children’s Law Center (CLC) reports.

“The survey illustrated the wide-ranging impact of student loan debt, not only on the individual lawyers who seek to commit their professional talents to the needs of children, but also on the children these lawyers represent,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of CLC and the Home at Last Initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

According to American Bar Association figures supplied by the CLC, starting salaries in dependency law average $37,500, while new lawyers at private firms can expect to earn an average of $90,000 a year.

Among more than 300 children’s lawyers surveyed by CLC in 43 states, seven in 10 reported owing at least $50,000 in student loans at the time of their graduation; nearly one-third said they owed $75,000 or more. Nearly one-quarter still owed more than $75,000 at the time of the survey, even though more than half of those surveyed had been practicing law for more than five years.

Although many attorneys said they view their work as exceptionally gratifying and motivating, 62 percent said loan debt would be at least a partial factor in any future decision to end their work with children and seek more pay.

Several attorneys emphasized that when children have ever-changing legal representation, they are deprived of the crucial benefits offered by a stable attorney/client relationship. The report says children whose attorneys have time to gain an intimate working knowledge of their clients’ family situations and to get experience navigating the complex world of dependency law often have better outcomes.

“Anytime … the people who represent the child, the family or the agency aren’t fully prepared, or don’t have the right information, or lack familiarity with the system, it slows down the process, and we have kids that are waiting for homes for years,” said Crystal Ward Allen, executive director of Public Children Services Association of Ohio, one of Home at Last’s state partners.
“The federal government is measuring us” against the Adoption and Safe Families Act’s time requirements to move kids back to their families or on to new ones, Allen said. “If we don’t meet that measurement, then we run the risk of losing federal funds.”
Krinsky and Allen support pending legislation that would forgive school loan debts for attorneys who represent low-income families or individuals involved in the family or domestic relations court system.

The Working to Enhance Courts for At Risk and Endangered Kids Act (S. 1679), sponsored by Sens. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), addresses other court reform recommendations made by the Pew Commission on Foster Care, including a loan forgiveness program for social workers at child protective agencies.

Sex Between Young Teens and Older Individuals: A Demographic Portrait
Child Trends
Available at

When people hear reports about a young teen having sex with an older partner, many envision a scenario such as a 14-year-old girl coerced by an adult teacher or coach. But the typical age gap in sexual relationships between young teens and older individuals is a lot narrower than many people think, according to this study by Child Trends.

Using data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, conducted by the federal National Center for Health Statistics, researchers found that 13 percent of all females and 5 percent of all males reported a first sexual experience at age 15 or younger with a partner who was at least three years older – figures that have remained relatively stable over the past decade.

On the other hand, 36 percent of females and 46 percent of males reported that their first sexual experience at age 15 or younger was with a partner closer to their own age. Child Trends also found that 77 percent of the older partners of young teens were still teens themselves at the time of the sexual relationship.

About half of the respondents reported that they were not sexually experienced by age 15.

“What we found was that most of these [age-disparate] sexual experiences occurred between young teens and older teens,” said Jennifer Manlove, one of the lead researchers. “Our classic example is sex between a high school freshman and a high school senior – a three- or four-year age gap with a very young partner.”

Additionally, researchers found that males represented 26 percent of all teens whose first sexual experience occurred at age 15 or sooner with someone at least three years older.

Manlove said the study results show that young male teens and older teens of both genders should be targets for messages aimed at reducing high-risk sexual behavior between partners of different ages.

According to the study, young teens who have sex with older partners are less likely to use condoms or other forms of contraception, and more likely to become pregnant as teens, have larger numbers of sexual partners during high school, and to use drugs and alcohol at higher levels.

“I think it brings up the issues of norms, and of what is an appropriate age difference for dating relationships,” Manlove said. “It shows a focal point for parents, as well as [youth service] providers: to focus on who their teens are spending time with, who their friendship networks are, who their dating networks are – and to target potential risk areas.”

Young teens most at risk of becoming involved with older sexual partners, according to the study, include those who had first sex at age 13 or younger; those who live in a family structure other than one headed by two biological parents; those whose parents have a high school degree or less; and those whose mothers were teens at the time of their birth.

Female teens whose first sexual experience at age 15 or younger was with a partner three or more years older were twice as likely as other sexually experienced teens to report that their first experience was not voluntary. See also “Report Roundup,” page 23.