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Columns
TV show is true-to-life but not truly its inspiration

Sunday, September 16, 2001

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Nick Fallin, the brash, good-looking, thirtysomething main character in the new CBS series "The Guardian," practices law with his father in a private firm in the Frick Building, Downtown, lions and all.

Fallin's father, Burton, is a respected three-piece-suit-even-at-dinner lawyer, but believes his son is more talented. Burton, a widower, worked his way out of the Mon Valley, where his own father was, of course, a steel worker. The TV show gets its name from Fallin's assignment to help a nonprofit group that represents abused and neglected children.

The real nonprofit group that represents children in Pittsburgh, called KidsVoice, is run by Scott Hollander, a good-looking 37-year-old who practiced law with his father in a private firm in the Frick Building. Scott's father, Tom Hollander, worked his way out of the Mon Valley, where Tom's father was a steel worker during World War II. Tom is a widower who believes his son is a more talented lawyer than he ever was.

But Scott Hollander is not Nick Fallin.

Fallin works for the nonprofit group only because the judge who convicted him on a drug possession charge gave him that option to avoid disbarment and jail time. Hollander doesn't use drugs, doesn't have a criminal record and chose to leave his lucrative position with his father's firm two years ago to run KidsVoice.

In addition to the drug thing, Fallin doesn't seem to have a problem with ethical breaches -- breaking into houses, stealing evidence, stuff like that. Hollander, a member of the ethics committee of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, insisted on principled reforms at KidsVoice that annoyed some members of the staff.

Fallin is obnoxious, arrogant, self-absorbed and money-grubbing. Hollander isn't.

Fallin is an only child, is single and doesn't seem to have a clue that one of his colleagues has a crush on him. Hollander is one of three children. His sister introduced him to his wife and his brother, David Hollander, is creator and executive producer of "The Guardian."

In the end, the greatest similarity between Fallin and Hollander is that both may make a big difference. Fallin will give a national audience a window through which they can peek into the clandestine world of child welfare, and Hollander is working locally to improve the quality of the lives of children caught in that system.

Bigger and better

When Hollander, the real-life ethical lawyer, took over the old Legal Aid for Children two years ago, the group was starving like an abused child. It needed money. It needed more lawyers and support staff and decent offices. It was famished for vision and drive.

It still needs decent offices.

But Hollander has gotten more money, more lawyers, more staff. And better than any of that, he has given the group a mission. Changing the name to KidsVoice last month symbolizes that revolution.

His mission is to establish a multifaceted approach to representing children that other child advocacy groups around the country can copy.

In addition to lawyers, Hollander has hired experts in social work, mental health, education, child development and drug and alcohol abuse. They work with attorneys to find the best solutions for children. For example, if a judge decides a teen-ager is neglected because he is skipping school to care for a sickly grandparent, an expert in human services may suggest that medical funds be used to hire a home health nurse for the grandparent so the child can get to school. That avoids placing the teen in foster care or a group home, and it also avoids leaving the grandparent alone while the child is in school and the mother works.

It gives KidsVoice lawyers additional options to present to a judge. Now they aren't stuck with accepting a Children, Youth and Families agency recommendation or asking a judge to order CYF to pay for something else. Instead, the KidsVoice attorney may offer the court a novel option that funds from another source would pay for.

"Our new model of advocacy allows us to talk about being the voice of hopes, rights and experience for abused and neglected children," Hollander says.

In two years, he has nearly tripled the agency's budget and staff. All but two of the original lawyers are gone. They have been replaced by the likes of Angela Orkin, a corporate lawyer from Atlanta who had won a bar association award there for her volunteer legal work with truant kids. Hollander lured her away from one of Pittsburgh's largest and most prestigious law firms, Reed Smith LLP, to work for KidsVoice, where the average lawyer's salary is a paltry $34,000.

In addition, Hollander's energy, enthusiasm and goals have attracted former U.S. Attorney Harry Litman and the acting co-director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, Eleanor L. Bush.

Litman is a volunteer executive counsel for KidsVoice. Bush will leave her job in Philadelphia to join the agency as legal director next month.

Though Litman has given KidsVoice only a temporary, part-time commitment, he was attracted to the agency because of its potential to improve lives and because of the attempt to create a national model for child advocacy.

"KidsVoice is poised to become a national model for this kind of advocacy group. It is a really good group that has initiative, talent and drive. Scott has brought vision," Litman says. As "The Guardian" premieres this week, Litman says, "The next few months will be a really important time in which KidsVoice can make an impact and get visibility on a national level."

Bush, a Yale Law School graduate who has worked to make health care more available to poor children and served as counsel for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, fits perfectly into Hollander's multifaceted representation approach. She knows the law concerning child welfare, health care and education.

Bush thought about visiting Pittsburgh from time to time to train KidsVoice's young lawyers and help coordinate their work with the human service specialists. But she decided that to do it right, she'd have to move here. So she's uprooting her family to join Hollander's team.

Even with all of that, Hollander is not satisfied. He needs more lawyers and more staff to fulfill the requirements of a state law specifying what work children's attorneys must do to prepare their cases, including how often they must visit and talk to their clients and other people involved. So he is fund-raising and pushing CYF to give him more money so that his lawyers can do what they need to for children and so that his agency is not among the lowest-paid per child served.

He sees "The Guardian" as an opportunity to bring attention to the needs of abused and neglected children and the needs of child advocacy organizations.

"This is great for child advocacy across the country. As we all go out to fund-raise, people will understand these issues," Hollander says from his cramped offices on the South Side, where his photographs of children from around the world brighten a place in which three lawyers are jammed into rooms meant for one and file cabinets fill hallways.

Creating awareness

The reason people don't understand the issues is that everything about child welfare is a secret. The court hearings in most states are closed to the public. Most child welfare agency directors are forbidden to speak about specific cases. The attorneys for parents, children and agencies rarely speak about individual cases.

So the public pays billions to support a government function about which it is prohibited from getting information.

"The Guardian" will give viewers a sense of what goes on in those secret child welfare meetings and Star Chamber juvenile court hearings. They'll get an idea of the complex issues that caseworkers, lawyers and juvenile judges struggle with daily. It will raise questions, like:

Should a child be returned to a schizophrenic father? What if he's stable on medication? What if he murdered the child's mother?

What should a judge do with a child who runs from a foster home and commits a crime deliberately so he can be detained in the same place with his drug-peddler older brother?

The show enables more people to understand these issues, and, Scott Hollander says, "to see the types of issues we deal with every day that people do not know about. It raises issues and puts them out there. It is a way for people to understand that organizations like ours exist and to better understand what we do."

Still, none of it's true. David Hollander, Scott's brother and the executive producer of "The Guardian," stresses that he and the four other writers for the show have made it all up. He writes fiction, stories, dramas, not documentaries.

Scott Hollander is a consultant, but he doesn't carry case files to Hollywood. He corrects specifics, such as language lawyers would or would not use. And he offers his brother a range of possibilities for what could happen after David has created a specific scenario. Stuff like that.

David Hollander had heard many stories from his brother as Scott worked for the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center in Denver and the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan, where he earned his law degree. For years, David ruminated about creating a show around child advocacy, but he couldn't get it right in his mind. The things that happened to children seemed too repulsive, the characters who "saved" them too saccharine. The Scott Hollander character is a stereotypical goody-two-shoes.

Then David came up with the idea of a child advocate who didn't want to do it, a guy forced to do good against his natural inclinations -- Nick Fallin. The inspiration came from David's work with actors sentenced to stay clean and perform public service, which they'd normally eschew.

David Hollander stresses, however, that the episodes themselves are not meant to be a public service. They're not parables. He has no social or political agenda.

But he says he does hope his brother's work is aided as a by-product of the show. "It would be great if it could create an awareness of issues and avenues of funding that do not now exist."

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