A Voice for the Voiceless
Through MCAP, a Montgomery County nonprofit, attorneys assist children victimized by abuse
by Bill Donahue

A 9-year-old girl—let’s call her Rose—was in the courtroom being asked to recount the horrors of sexual abuse allegedly committed by her stepfather. Rose’s mother had been sympathetic to her husband in the matter, meaning Rose had no one to turn to for support or comfort.

In other words, she was alone and unprotected.

After her time on the witness stand was through, Rose stepped down and stood there, in the middle of the courtroom, scared and unsure of where to go or who to be with. An assistant district attorney saw this and came to the girl’s aid, leading her safely out of the courtroom.

Marc Robert Steinberg, an attorney with Rubin, Glickman, Steinberg and Gifford P.C., which is based in Colmar, was in the courtroom that day as a participant in the case. He and two other attorneys—Risa Vetri Ferman, now the district attorney for Montgomery County, and Wendy Demchick-Ally, now a Court of Common Pleas judge for the county—decided something needed to be done to “give a voice to the voiceless.”

The result is an organization now known as the Montgomery County Child Advocacy Project (MCAP), a Norristown-based nonprofit that operates with support from the Montgomery Bar Foundation and generous donors. MCAP provides pro-bono child advocate attorneys to represent children’s interests in court proceedings. In 1999, Steinberg became MCAP’s first child advocate attorney.

“Our mission is to protect the kid when no one else will,” Steinberg says. “If mom or dad doesn’t want to step in, we do. … We now have 140 child advocates, and the whole idea is that lawyers volunteer their time to represent a child in doing whatever is necessary.

“So many cases you wouldn’t think would be possible,” he continues. “In one case there was a child who needed heart surgery, but the parents wouldn’t agree to it. One of the advocates went to court to get an order for the child to receive the surgery. When the time came, the advocate was there [in the hospital] for the surgery just to support the child. The advocates are selfless and truly go the extra mile to make sure the child’s rights are preserved.”

MCAP receives referrals for child-abuse cases from the judges and courts of Montgomery County, the district attorney’s office, the public defender’s office, the Office of Children and Youth, local police departments, hospitals and private social agencies. Since 2005, when MCAP first started tracking its data, the organization has helped more than 2,400 children. Steinberg estimates that MCAP’s child advocate attorneys provide as much as $750,000 per year in free legal services.

It Happens Here
Considering the ongoing sex scandals within the Catholic Church and, recently, the high-profile case of Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant football coach under Joe Paterno at Penn State University, children need protection more than ever—often from those who should be doing the protecting themselves.

“I’m a mother of four girls, and my passion is protecting children,” says Mary Pugh, executive director of MCAP. “We tend to think of abuse as something that happens in Philadelphia and other big, bad cities, but anything that happens in Philadelphia happens in Montgomery County. Eighty eight to 90 percent of [abused] children are abused by people who are close to them.

“Sometimes it can be disturbing,” she continues, “and it’s hard when you think you’ve seen the worst case and then something worse comes along. People are very creative about hurting the helpless.”

Most children are abused by someone they know and trust, according to the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C. An estimated 60 percent of perpetrators of sexual abuse are known to the child but are not family members, such as babysitters, childcare providers and neighbors, while close to 30 percent of perpetrators are family members. Other research suggests approximately one in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused before the age of 18, with older children at greater risk; those ages 12 and older represent 35.9 percent of abuse victims, according to APA data.

MCAP’s child advocates are paired with the children they represent based on the details of the case and the personalities involved. For any attorney who wants to get involved, there’s a way for them to help, according to Pugh—whether through transactional work or in the courtroom defending a child’s interests. All child advocates are required to follow a training program certified by the Pennsylvania Bar Association, and all must be in good standing in Pennsylvania and submit to a criminal background check.

“There’s a lot of close monitoring and tracking of cases,” she says. “It’s not a handoff [to the child advocate] by any means.”

The number of cases MCAP handles has risen 30 percent in the past two years, according to Pugh, an increase she attributes to a combination of factors both economic and environmental. Even so, MCAP has experienced “some unbelievable results,” Pugh says. Example: One of the children helped by MCAP is now a mother herself, and she asked her child advocate attorney to be the godparent of her child.

MCAP is now turning its eye toward growth. In the near future the organization would like to add a social worker and psychologist, but to get there it will need to rely on fundraising efforts—the Salute to Heroes Dinner Dance and Silent Auction to honor notable child advocates and team members, as well as a summertime 5K race in Chestnut Hill known as Run for the Hill of It, for example—and donations from foundations, corporations and individuals.

“For me, it’s been somewhat of an eye-opening experience,” Steinberg says. “When we first started out we didn’t have that many cases. The number of people finally coming forward is growing dramatically, but I didn’t realize it would grow so exponentially. Some of these kids, it’s just pitiful what they’ve had to go through, and they need our help. In light of Jerry Sandusky, you can see just how horrible it can be.”