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Former teacher finds calling as Bay Area Legal Services attorney

 
Initially reluctant to study law, Kristen Lang became a lawyer so that she could be a voice for kids.
Initially reluctant to study law, Kristen Lang became a lawyer so that she could be a voice for kids.
Published July 2, 2015

TAMPA — Kristen Lang didn't want to be an attorney.

The journalism turned political science major only tinkered with the idea during her last year as an undergraduate at University of Florida.

"I remember reading this book about prepping for the LSAT, and it talked about the top 10 reasons not to go to law school," she said, laughing. "Every reason I had was on that list. I was like, 'I don't have any good reason.'"

Not yet, at least.

So she went a slightly different direction and applied with Teach for America after hearing an ambassador speak to one of her advocacy organizations.

"That's how I ended up in New York," she said.

The South Bronx to be exact, teaching a challenging but endearing group of sixth-graders at a school situated in the heart of a low-income community. She didn't know it at the time, but stepping into that classroom was her first step toward entering the courtroom.

Today, as an attorney for Bay Area Legal Service's L. David Shear Children's Law Center, Kristen represents dependent children up to age 5 in Hillsborough County.

"We represent the child directly as their attorney," she says. "We ensure their educational needs are met while they're in care, that they're health needs are met, that any benefits they're entitled to are received, and that their case, to the best of our ability, moves as quickly and safely to permanency as possible."

Lang is their voice. Their protector. Their warrior. But she never would have ended up here if her eyes hadn't been opened by a world so vastly different from hers.

"I compare it to living your life in black and white, then living it in Technicolor," she says. "It's not understanding the struggles of the low-income community and then being totally immersed in it."

The majority of her students had been through more hardships than most adults. Housing insecurity. Food insecurity. Physical and sexual abuse. Witnessing homicides. Slowly, a strong case for becoming a lawyer started building. The "good reason" she couldn't put her finger on back in college was beginning to make itself clear.

Then one day, she found it. Or more accurately, he found her.

"He was this tiny little thing," she said, remembering the first time the boy from Brooklyn walked through her classroom door. She welcomed him in, helped him pick out a book and showed him to an empty desk so he could join the rest of the class for independent reading time.

"All my kids are quietly reading and I start hearing, 'tshhh, tshh'. I turn around and he is ripping the pages in the book," Lang said. "That was the start of a number of very alarming behaviors."

It took about a month for his story to unravel. He'd been removed from his mother and placed with his father, then removed from his father and placed in foster care. Eventually, he ran away and lived on the streets for weeks.

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"Twelve years old," Kristen said. She pulls out a handwritten note from him.

Dear, Ms. Lang Sorry for being very disrespectful and not listening to you … sometimes I really put myself down because I have a really bad life would you please accept my appoligy(sic).

"This is the reason I'm a lawyer," Lang said, holding it up.

Lang enrolled in Yale Law School, which had an excellent loan repayment program for those specializing in public interest work. She spent her entire law school career focusing on at-risk kids.

Life as a public interest attorney means managing anywhere from 35-45 children's cases at any given time. Kids like Fantasia, now 6, who had a rough start in life. Lang and the team at Bay Area Legal helped find her a forever home with Patricia Lockhart, a Tampa resident who works as a food support worker at Berkeley Preparatory School.

"Kristen was there for me and for her," said Lockhart, 55. "Even now if I call her, she's here. She's like part of the family."

In addition to Lang's caseload, one of her biggest focuses is continuing the fellowship she wrote during her last year at Yale. The fellowship, which Bay Area Legal began sponsoring after she graduated, focuses on getting more children in care into high-quality education settings.

"You talk about ending the cycle of poverty or dependency, that's where you need to start," she said.

Just as the boy from Brooklyn and so many other kids helped open her eyes, she hopes the work she's doing helps open other people's eyes.

"We have this theory of our country that you work hard and you can be whatever you want to be," she said. "I think it's the right ideal. I think that it's worth striving for while recognizing that it doesn't exist. And I think we have to have an honest view of the struggles kids in these communities face, before as adults we want to hold them accountable for all the decisions that they've made. We need to have more investment in those communities to really give them the opportunity to succeed."

Contact Erika Vidal Homes at hillsnews@tampabay.com.