Class of ’79 | Certain cases of abused and neglected children still tug at Frank Cervone C’79. One goes back to 1999.
“We tried for years to hold a mother accountable for chronic neglect and truancy of her children,” recalls Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, a Philadelphia-based program that provides volunteer lawyers for abused and neglected children. “But each time we or the Department of Human Services got close, the mother would put together a short, barely satisfying solution. Then, just months later, there would be another report of abuse or neglect—the proverbial revolving door. The children were so loyal to their mother that they would lie to the judge about the poor living conditions, and our efforts to protect them were repeatedly frustrated.” (The emotional bond between mother and children, he explains, may well have been the product of “guilt, dysfunction, or other less-than-salutary influences—the case law now describes this as a kind of pathology, a ‘negative bond.’” But that didn’t change the unhealthy stalemate.)
“Then one day we were doing a home visit and one of the teenagers whispered to me, ‘You have to get us out of here!’ That child knew life with her mom was chaotic, and she also knew that we were being faithful and diligent in wanting to keep her and her siblings safe.”
All the kids went into foster care that day—“all with strangers, since the extended family had been burned out by the mother’s shenanigans by then,” he adds. To this day, he isn’t sure what happened to them. But he’s hopeful that they turned out all right.
“When a child is placed in state custody foster care, our job is to make sure all the child-welfare workers are doing their jobs,” says Cervone. “It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about getting the child what they need.”
Child Advocates, as his organization is often called, engages more than 350 lawyers to represent upwards of 1,000 children a year with adoptions, childhood protection, and abandonment and abuse cases. It is, he says, the nation’s largest and oldest organization of volunteer lawyers helping children, and offers local and state-wide training programs for lawyers on child-law advocacy and family-law practice.
“We team the volunteer lawyers with staff social workers, who carry relatively low caseloads so that they can provide a high-quality advocacy presence for each child,” notes Cervone, who started as the organization’s in-house counsel in 1990, and two years later became its executive director. “We work to represent the whole child, ensuring safety, family permanency, and the well-being of health and education.”
Some of the court cases that Child Advocates gets involved with are adversarial, which can be wrenching for all sides. But more often than not they are collaborative.
“When we try to resist state intervention, it becomes a civil-liberty model, where we’re trying to either resist or improve the county government’s intervention and coincidentally promote their state efforts to protect the child from parental misconduct,” he explains in somewhat lawyerly language. “In any given case in the triangle of child-parent-state, you could be fighting with one or the other of those two, or you could be working entirely in concert with both to get the child and family from here to there.
“It just so happens that our disputes often involve the very heart of a kid’s life—where they will live, who will parent them, and who will be their family—so it always feels like the stakes are high.”
Cervone is often reminded of the enormity of those stakes whenever he visits a parent in jail or prison.
“When I’m in a jail, I invariably have the thought, ‘These were our kids once. Did we do enough?’” he says. “Our nation’s prisons are literally filled with former foster youth. While we should not take responsibility for the entirety of this bleak picture [of the linkage between foster care and prison], the system’s interventions must be seen as opportunities to make a difference. Kids need to be in school, and in the right school, and they need to finish school. They need families who will support and care for them. They need therapy that effectively addresses their trauma. This is the story we want to change.”
Cervone himself grew up in a racially changing Philadelphia neighborhood, and he saw things that made him reflect on issues of racism and social justice. His reflections grew deeper at Penn, where he wrote his American-history thesis on intellectuals’ response to the civil-rights movement of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.
Another part of his education at Penn came from, of all things, serving as stage manager for the Glee Club.
“That’s where I learned to be a leader,” he says. “Part of that education was figuring out how to convince the singers to offload the scenery from the bus to the concert halls where we sang.”
At Villanova Law School, Cervone volunteered in a legal-aid office, and in 1981 he joined the Christian Brothers, a teaching order of the Catholic Church. Nine years later, realizing that he wanted to have a family someday, he left the order and began working for Child Advocates.
Jessica Singal Shapiro, first deputy commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services, describes Cervone as a “zealous advocate for children and youth,” adding: “His dedication to the children and families of this city is evident to all who meet him.”
In addition to drumming up volunteer lawyers, Cervone raises funds for the organization. That is far less challenging—at least on an emotional level—than those court cases.
“I don’t find it hard at all to ask for money or a favor for our kids,” he says. “I can promise that this will make a difference in the life of a child, and maybe even in your life. People get that. Because people are generous, and most are givers. We’re simply asking them to make this work one of their priorities.
“I’m the most optimistic person you’ll meet today,” he adds. “I have a belief that people will come through and that we can make a positive difference together.”