Gifted public servant

I don’t know what to write about this, or how, but I have to. If only to quote Susan Barnes-Gelt, writing in Sunday’s newspaper:

[R]arely recognized are those gifted public servants who work to advance the mission of caring for the most vulnerable among us, ensuring that the protocols and systems that protect them are empathic, predictable and fair.

One of those stewards is Lynn Lehmann, who is suffering from terminal kidney cancer and deserves to be recognized. For 17 years, from 1984 until 2001, Lehmann supervised the human services section of the Denver city attorney’s office. . . . As a result of his unrelenting advocacy and focus, outcomes for Colorado’s children and families improved significantly.

The full column is below the fold.

I remember back in the 1990’s when a new Mayor appointed a new City Attorney. The new City Attorney – very smart, with a lot of relevant experience – thought it would be good to start routinely reassigning lawyers from one section of the office to another. Cross-training, enriching our experience, diversifying our skills, or just plain shaking us up and waking us up – I can’t remember which if any of those goals he had in mind.

But he was surprised by the strong response from Lynn Lehmann’s lawyers in the Human Services section. They were deeply committed to that work, and did not at all equate it with working on tax assessment disputes or eminent domain cases or construction contracts or the prosecution of barking dog tickets – or any of the many other things that assistant city attorneys in other sections do. They convinced the City Attorney to leave them where they were – doing utterly non-glamorous, difficult, unsung legal work, in the courthouse trenches day in and day out, to protect children and other vulnerable people.

Applauding a public steward

By Susan Barnes-Gelt
Denver Post Columnist

Article Last Updated: 06/02/2007 11:44:57 AM MDT

The impact of philanthropy is reflected in the strength and diversity of our public institutions, and is plainly visible. Civic stewards – volunteers or visionaries or loving critics – challenge the status quo.

But rarely recognized are those gifted public servants who work to advance the mission of caring for the most vulnerable among us, ensuring that the protocols and systems that protect them are empathic, predictable and fair.

One of those stewards is Lynn Lehmann, who is suffering from terminal kidney cancer and deserves to be recognized. For 17 years, from 1984 until 2001, Lehmann supervised the human services section of the Denver city attorney’s office. The transformation of the department during his tenure was significant, going from nine attorneys and six support staff to 26 attorneys and 34 paralegals. As a result of his unrelenting advocacy and focus, outcomes for Colorado’s children and families improved significantly.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1941 and educated at Ohio State and Stanford, Lehmann served as an officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He married Denverite Peggy Rifkin and practiced law in Denver for 11 years. By the time he went to work for the Department of Social Services, Lehmann had spent several years representing respondent parents and as guardian ad litem for children in dependency proceedings. He understood the weaknesses of the Colorado Children’s Code and had a direct impact on numerous revisions that continue to benefit kids.

His careful work on the code resulted in speedier dispositions for children under the age of 6. Previously, the process of determining where children taken from a parent were ultimately placed was interminable. Kids were shuttled between foster homes for years, caught in a devastating cycle of uncertainty and instability.

“The issue for me was always doing the right thing and doing it right,” he has said. Over-burdened court dockets, harried staff and fear of losing cases on appeal meant that decisions about whether children would be placed in long-term foster care, returned to the parent or parents or released for adoption were unresolved for years. Achieving permanent disposition for kids meant that cases had to be heard promptly and staff – lawyers and social workers – had to be rigorous in their research and testimony to avoid losing on appeal.

Lehmann secured $750,000 from the state to hire a judge and secure a courtroom, resulting in the disposition of 110 cases affecting 140 children, all of whom received permanent placement.

Child experts agree that permanency is critical to healthy development.

In the 1980s, Lehmann sued the state to force funding for foster care, which was seriously under-funded and lacking sufficient workers. Ultimately, the legislature funded 390 new positions. Again, the outcome improved the lives of Colorado’s children.

Lehmann understood that “putting a human face” on the issue was vital. The court system was over-burdened. The social worker, the parents, attorneys and Lehmann as guardian ad litem were present in court. But the child was invisible. Using a Polaroid photo and pleading as a pretext, Lehmann offered a picture of the child into evidence, thus making it a permanent part of the file.

Eventually, at the termination hearing, the judge would review the file, see the picture of the child and suddenly the real person became part of the equation.

In 1995, Lehmann secured more than $1 million to focus on truancy by facilitating changes to the Children’s Code that resulted in the ability of school districts, the department and the legal system to share information benefiting the child. Previously, arcane confidentiality laws meant the district attorney, the schools and social services could not collaborate on better outcomes.

“I love to deal with sets of systems, complicated problems and figure out a way to find solutions,” Lehmann has said. “Though they’re usually not apparent on their face … I never gave up. I may not have the resources today, but you never know what’s out there tomorrow.”

And because of Lynn Lehmann’s work, tomorrow – for many of Colorado’s most vulnerable children – will be better.

Susan Barnes-Gelt (bs13@qwest.net) served eight years on the Denver City Council and was an aide to former Denver Mayor Federico Peña. Her column appears on alternate Sundays.

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