A Voice for Kids

Jennifer McGarrity provides one for children who need one

Published in 2010 Pennsylvania Rising Stars — June 2010

A cloud of cigarette smoke greets Jennifer McGarrity as she enters the living room of an Allegheny County house. She’s been in unsettling homes before; as an attorney with Pittsburgh-based advocacy group KidsVoice, it’s part of her job. But the air here seems particularly thick.

She explains that she’s here to meet with the couple’s youngest son, 5-year-old Gage, who the county fears is living in an unsuitable environment. The county has its reasons. Substance abuse issues among the parents. A history of violence. And the fact that Gage’s 14-year-old brother Joshua was recently arrested for breaking into a church, and it was Gage and their mother who were the look-outs.

McGarrity tells them that she has been appointed guardian ad litem by the Allegheny County Juvenile Court, and her responsibility is to ensure that Gage has a voice in court. (Joshua had already been placed in group housing through probation.)

At this, the parents laugh.

“A 5-year-old doesn’t have anything to say,” the father says.

 

At KidsVoice, McGarrity works alongside 22 attorneys and 17 child advocacy specialists, who together advocate for more than 4,000 children a year, as appointed by the court. She is a member of the special assignments team, which handles dependency cases involving delinquency issues. In that role, she is able to help kids who might not be able to speak for themselves.

Ever since she was young, McGarrity knew she wanted to work with kids. She originally thought she’d be a teacher, and pursued an elementary education degree at Duquesne University. “I wanted to better my students’ lives by introducing them to a world of learning,” she says.

But then a friend gave her the opportunity to earn some extra cash by working part time at a law firm. “By the end of that summer my eyes had really been opened to this whole new world,” she says. She went back to college for her senior year, and began preparing for the LSAT and researching and applying to law schools.

McGarrity earned her J.D. from the University of Dayton School of Law and took a job with a firm in Pittsburgh doing family law. Then in 2005 the KidsVoice opportunity came around. She was attracted by the organization’s multidisciplinary approach—each child is assigned both an attorney and a child advocacy specialist to address legal and physical and emotional needs—and had a sense that it would be a good fit for her. “I saw child advocacy as a unique opportunity for me to use my law degree to accomplish much of the same things that I set out to accomplish as an elementary school teacher,” she says. “Whether as a teacher or a child advocate … my hope is to have a positive impact on the children that I work with.”

The job has been an education. “Before I started working here, I never realized the circumstances that children find themselves in,” she says, noting the high incidence of addiction and mental health issues she finds in parents and how neglect or abuse can follow.

She attends a lot of court hearings. “That’s fulfilling to know—that but for my presence at that court hearing, that child may not have either received the service that they needed or that child may have been returned to a potentially abusive situation,” she says.

It’s rewarding work, but she’s not immune to the stress. “I think after you do this work for so long you realize that sometimes the best that you can do is put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound, which is sometimes disheartening,” says McGarrity. “If you take the approach that you are trying to improve your client’s circumstances—no matter how small the improvement may be—then I think that you will feel that you’ve accomplished something. Because no matter what your client’s circumstances, you can almost always improve it in some way.”

 

She certainly did that for Gage and Joshua. Today, they are in much better places. Gage, who struggled for a time with tantrums and destructive behavior, has been adopted by the foster parents he originally went to and is on track in school, and Joshua, who remained with an aunt and uncle, just finished high school and plans to go to community college. He and Gage are in contact. McGarrity lives for such results.

“[The children] motivate me to hopefully help them make the best decisions that they can,” she says. “So that when they leave the [system] … they can continue to make good decisions as an adult.”

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