On Tuesday, October 14, more than 400 Children’s Rights supporters packed New York City’s Gotham Hall to celebrate our victories on behalf of America’s abused and neglected children and to honor civil rights attorney Richard D. Emery, partner in Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, with the Children’s Rights Champion Award.
It was a stirring and inspiring evening — and a very successful one as well, raising more than $800,000 in support of Children’s Rights’ work. ESPN SportsCenter anchor Hannah Storm hosted the event, and the legendary newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin introduced Mr. Emery. In addition to a speech by the Winner sisters of New Jersey — two of whom were named plaintiffs in our successful class action seeking the reform of the child welfare system in their home state — the event also featured the premiere of a new video exploring the results of Children’s Rights’ reform campaign in Tennessee.
We are grateful to our benefit co-chairs — Gerald B. Lefcourt, partner in Gerald B. Lefcourt PC; Jeff Ross, producer of Late Night with Conan O’Brien; and Edward C. Wallace, shareholder in Greenberg Traurig LLP – and to all who came out and offered their generous support.
More information about the benefit — including lots of photos — can be found in the News + Events section of our website. But we wanted to call particular attention to the remarks that Mr. Emery made in accepting the Children’s Rights Champion Award.
Mr. Emery has been a forceful advocate for civil rights throughout his career. He became involved with Children’s Rights when he served as counsel for three young people who were members of the class in our case in New Jersey— and who had suffered severe malnourishment in an adoptive home there. His successful work on their behalf resulted in a large damages award and the creation of significant children’s rights law. He has been a member of the Children’s Rights Board of Directors since 2006.
In his remarks, Mr. Emery gave an impassioned account of his own personal reasons for supporting Children’s Rights — and an appeal for more people to do what they can to help the extremely vulnerable children who have suffered abuse and neglect and now must depend on public child welfare systems for protection and care.
We were honored, humbled, and deeply moved by Mr. Emery’s words, and we reprint them here so that those who heard them in person can revisit them once again — and those who did not can read his very eloquent thoughts on the importance of speaking up for children who otherwise would not have a voice.
By Richard D. Emery
Founding Partner, Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP
October 14, 2008
Lawyers are often rightly accused of losing sight of what life is really about. Getting caught up in the abstraction of argument. Losing the forest for the trees.
That never happens at Children’s Rights. Because the driving force of this lean, passionate, committed, and focused group of civil rights lawyers is the simplest and most compelling right of all — the right to childhood.
Kids in foster care don’t have what almost everyone in this room takes for granted — that you and your kids feel safe, know where their bed is, who will kiss them goodnight, who will care when they cry, whom they can complain to, whom they can laugh with, and who loves them.
Worse, many kids in foster care — in the systems that Children’s Rights reforms — are in danger, don’t get medical care, education, or even proper nutrition. Many have lives of shuttling from institution to institution, or between foster homes.
When I met three of those children in some godawful grey welfare building in southern New Jersey, they had been eating out of a dumpster. They had eaten the insulation from the walls of their house.
And all they could do was hug me and Marcia [Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights]. They were desperate for love and attention. They were searching for where they could next feel safe.
Now look at them. They are here with us tonight. They are like flowers that have bloomed — a testament to their wonderful adoptive parents, and to Children’s Rights.
I think we are born alone and we die alone, and everything in between is a search for connection with other people and the world around us.
Childhood has to provide the most connected, supportive, and loving foundation for that journey, or we falter badly.
My experience with foster kids is that they are single-mindedly in search of who will love them next. This leaves them either totally vulnerable, in constant search for affection and approval, or feeling rejected, withdrawn, and angry — and sometimes all of the above.
Most significantly, it leaves them without a voice to cry out for their plight.
What Children’s Rights understands is that virtually all civil rights movements start with the voice of those oppressed. African Americans, women, gays, the disabled — to name the most prominent — cried out and organized, and the legal movement followed.
That’s different for foster kids. They have no voice except their cry for the love and safety that is missing in their lives. But few hear that cry.
Children’s Rights does. Children’s Rights leads instead of following.
This national tragedy of hundreds of thousands of kids who feel completely alone, unloved, and neglected in state foster care fuels and focuses Children’s Rights’ effort to force state systems to give these kids what they have a right to — a safe, secure, and, yes, loving childhood.
Children’s Rights does it with passion and untiring zeal.
Children’s Rights fights to connect these kids with their families or new families, so they can gain the human connection necessary to overcome their desperate need to gain a footing, to have what we all too often take for granted: childhood.
So we are gathered here tonight in celebration of Children’s Rights.
But we are really gathered here tonight in celebration of childhood and the quest to save it and capture it for those who now can’t have it.
In these insecure times, we still must call upon our reserves and commitment to honor and support what’s even more important than our own feelings of fear — the fear and insecurity of a generation of children who need our help.
Children’s Rights is the way to give that support — and honor those children.