Society often recognizes people who volunteer at a soup kitchen or organize a charity event, but the more unconventional methods of community service might often go unnoticed.
In this not-so-ordinary case it is the efforts of local attorneys to uphold the purpose of the Juvenile Court system – to protect children and reunite families. These are lawyers who volunteer to take on cases in their spare time, without compensation.
Maria Etzrodt Gibbons, solicitor for the Office of Children and Youth, said there are several members of the Montgomery County Bar Association who volunteer on occasion to handle dependency matters in Juvenile Court, representing parents who often might have mental health issues, addictions or other issues that may make them difficult clients, unsympathetic to many.
But in Norristown there are a couple of lawyers who, in the past three years, have stepped up to the plate and volunteered over and over again without complaint, she said.
One of them has practiced law in Norristown since the mid-1970s and was actually the first lawyer to sign up for these volunteer cases. And one believes in using her expertise to give back to the community in which she was raised and still lives. They are William H. Pugh of Erdenheim and Colleen Consolo of Norristown.
Consolo, a 1987 Norristown Area High School graduate, explained that dependency matters are the cases when parents face losing their children to the court system because they were reported, for child abuse or neglect, or maybe their child is uncontrollable.
“If (parents) can avoid court, great, maybe (they) can work out parenting classes,” Consolo said. “But in more extreme matters, like a child is born with drugs in his system, for example, (case workers) take the child away first and then figure out what they can do to reunite the family. That’s court’s goal, to get the family back together.”
The Office of Legal Aid is the county agency there for people in “extreme” situations like this who cannot afford to hire legal counsel. Parents are entitled to representation, which is often provided by legal aid attorneys, but frequently a conflict arises.
Consolo explained that in some cases, the parents may not have the same interests and therefore cannot be represented by the same attorney, in which case they might go without counsel. “Legal aid can’t be in both spots so they look for volunteers to come in and take over,” she said.
That’s where Consolo enters the picture. She represents the “gentleman” who may have a mental health condition, is a drug user and is the father of a child who was born with drugs in his system. Because some of these people recover, she said. They get clean, they find a job, they take care of their child and the child is no longer in the welfare system.
“We’re looking at making sure all his rights are covered before he loses rights to this child,” she said of one of her current clients.
Consolo helps her clients better themselves by getting them into drug rehab, telling them to take parenting classes, guiding them if they need to see a psychiatrist or counselor and making sure they know what their rights are in regard to their child.
“Hopefully at some point (they) become a parent again,” she said. “Some people never recover, other clients do everything I tell them to do.”
In 2006 Pugh was president of the bar association. He said by then the Montgomery Child Advocacy Program had taken off, and many lawyers were volunteering to represent innocent children in dependency matters.
But there weren’t too many people stepping up to help the parents whose children were being taken from them. Pugh said it was President Judge, S. Gerald Corso who brought this to his attention.
Leading by example, Pugh volunteered to be the first attorney added to “the dependency list.” He also recruited many lawyers who still volunteer to serve on these cases today.
“The court tries to reunite parents with their kids, even though they may not necessarily be the best (society has to offer),” he said. “These people are required to have representation, and sometimes you have to represent people who are not so warm and fuzzy so their rights are protected.”
“Having your child removed from your house, while it may be the best interest of the child at the time … once you get sober and become a productive member of society, you have a chance (to see the child).”
During college Consolo interned with Montgomery County’s mental health department and worked for a program called FLECS (Family Life Education Counseling Services). After graduation she became a group therapist for children whose parents were addicts or had mental health issues, and some of them were abused. Because of her background, Consolo said after law school she was often hired to represent parents in dependency matters.
Her practice works primarily in family law – divorce, custody and adoption. Occasionally she takes on dependency matters privately but for the most part as a volunteer, mainly because of “the shortage of people available who’d take these types of cases on,” she said.
Consolo said she’s not always sympathetic to her clients, and she has “no problem forcefully telling them how to handle a case.
“But the reality is if someone doesn’t step in and put them on the right track, the child could be going back into that home at some point in danger and the situation that puts them in danger won’t have been resolved.
“The goal of the family court and (the Office of) Children and Youth is to unify this family, that’s how the law is geared,” Consolo said. “Our tax dollars are paying for these children while they’re in the system, because if the parents can’t afford an attorney, they can’t afford to pay the county child support.
“It makes me feel better my money is not going to support their child if I give it a couple hours of my time,” she said.
Consolo, who sponsors her nephew’s Norristown Little League baseball team and has donated money to NAHS marching and concert band in support of her niece, said she’s also had dependency cases where both parents are partially mentally retarded. “They’re not addicts, they didn’t make a choice, they just need lessons on how to care for their child,” she said.
She’s also had clients who don’t speak English, people whose cultures are so different that what appears wrong to others doesn’t seem wrong to them, she said. “They just need to be educated on how things have to be done here.
“In those types of situations,” she continued, “giving this person a service and trying to keep their family together when they may not have done anything wrong in their perspective – it is as important as volunteering at a soup kitchen.”
Pugh, whose private practice is 100 percent focused on civil litigation and therefore has no relationship to dependency court, said, “To have children out of foster care and with their birth parents and preserving the family unit when it’s safe for the child, I think benefits the whole community. It saves the community financial resources, emotional resources, if you can safely reunite these families.”