This morning started off with a presentation on how the National Child Protection Pro Bono Lawyers Network built up its network from 72 lawyers to over 9000 all across China. Zhang Xuemei, a senior researcher at Zhicheng law firm, presented on the history, goals, and accomplishments of the National Child Protection Bro Bono Lawyers Network.
Zhang Xuemei began working with Zhicheng in 2000, and much of the work that Zhicheng does now had not yet begun. One of the first cases that Zhicheng handled occurred here in Beijing. A father abandoned his two girls, ages 9 and 11, in a hotel, and gave them no way to return to their home province of Guanxi, in south central China. The hotel reached out to Zhicheng for help, but since the children were from Guanxi, the court proceedings had to take place there. Travel from Beijing to Guanxi is long, and expensive, and without monetary support for the travel and assistance, Zhicheng wouldn’t be able to help. Instead, they reached out to a pro bono lawyer local to Guanxi, and the girls were able to return home. This case made the founders of Zhicheng think, what if every province had pro bono lawyers? What if, whenever there was a case outside of Beijing, someone at Zhicheng could just pick up the phone, and make a call to ensure that people received the help they deserved? And so, the National Child Protection Pro Bono Lawyers Network was born. At the beginning, there were only seventy-two lawyers, but now, the network reaches over 9,000 attorneys all over the country.
In 2002, a committee specifically focused on the protection of children was established by the All China Lawyers Association, and it was the first lawyer association system in the country that dealt with child protection. Since then, over 20 different local province lawyer associations have stablished a special committee on child protection, and the Pro Bono Lawyers Network has successfully created a solid relationship with these associations.
Ms. Zhang then moved on to describe the goals of the National Protection Network. First, they work to encourage more lawyers to join the pro bono network and work with child protection. Second, they work to integrate legal, social, and public resources to provide comprehensive legal support and protection for children in need. Finally, they promote legislative reform and talk about the policy implications of legal aid and protection of children through legal research.
To provide an example of how the network attempts to bring a variety of departments and individuals together, Ms. Zhang provided an example of a guardianship revocation case that took over a year to get to court. A young girl had been adopted by another family, and her stepmother and stepbrother both abused her. The girl reported her stepbrother to the police, and as a result, the case was dealt with as a criminal case, and the stepmother’s abuse was not included in the initial proceedings. The Protection Network brought together legal services, counselors, social workers, and a plethora of other groups in order to provide the best possible solution for the child. While there were struggles, especially because social work is such a new field in China, they pulled together and came up with a solution that they believed would suit the girl best. The girl ended up being sent to a children’s home, and the stepbrother was convicted for sexual abuse. Unwilling to let a woman who perpetuated violence against a child walk free, they attempted to pursue a civil case against the stepmother. Unfortunately, at this time the legislation surrounding child protection was lacking. As a result, the court did not believe the stepmother’s abuse rose above the level of reasonable punishment, and thus did not constitute a crime. However, the group was able to strip the stepmother of her guardianship rights, and the court required the woman to continue to support the girl financially until she was an adult.
Ms. Zhang wrapped up the “goals” portion of her presentation, and then moved onto the network’s achievements. She began by describing a case that occurred in Jiangsu, where a mother ran away from an extremely abusive relationship, and the father turned to abusing his daughter when she left. A neighbor took the daughter to the nearby police station to report it, and a case was filed. The prosecutor for the case believed the father was unfit to be a guardian, and wrote a letter to the Civil Affairs Bureau requesting that his guardianship rights be revoked. Unsure of how to proceed, the Civil Affairs Bureau in Jiangsu contacted the Network. Several lawyers in Jiangsu who were part of the Network assisted with the case, and were able to support the Civil Affairs Bureau and allow them to deal with the case properly. As a result, the court revoked the father’s guardianship. The question remains, where do we settle children once guardianship has been revoked? In the above case, the guardianship of the child remains with the Civil Affairs Bureau, and she was sent to a boarding school. Each case has a different answer to this question, but the important thing is to consider what is best for the child.
Ms. Zhang and Ms. Wang Xin provided some legal context for these cases as well, explaining that domestic violence and restraining orders were, until recently, a relatively foreign concept to the general public. Many anti-domestic violence efforts in China focus on women, and did not talk about the affect that domestic violence has on children. As a result, Zhicheng and the Network worked to promote China’s first anti-domestic violence law, and pushed the importance of including children in the legislation. They also provided context on how exactly Zhicheng supports the Network, and described the vast array of trainings, guidelines, publications, and other materials that Zhicheng provides for the lawyers in the pro bono network.
During the following Q&A session, Mariya Brestnichka post a series of wonderfully insightful questions including how lawyers become part of the network, whether there are internal regulations, how strategic decisions are made, and whether or not there is a central board of members. Ms. Zhang answered each of these questions in an equally insightful way, explaining that while there are a set of clear guidelines as to who can become a member of the network, they remain relatively basic to encourage as many qualified lawyers as possible to join the network. She further explained that there are a group of leading lawyers in each province, and the requirements for these central members is slightly more stringent than general members of the network. As for decision-making, they have found that smaller group decisions are generally representative of the whole so they don’t worry about including every one of the 9,000 members in each decision.
Deepika Murali then asked if they saw more regard for human rights and more participation from the government in the past twenty years, since Zhicheng began. Ms. Wang explained that prior to 2010 or 2011, there was little to no government participation in child protection initiatives and legislation, but over the past nine years, the legislation and participation has improved vastly. While some laws are still lacking, there is at least one new piece of legislation released each year. For example, this year there was a policy paper recently released about “social orphans” or children whose parents are not dead, but they are in prison or the child has been abandoned. The policy paper stated that these social orphans are now eligible to receive benefits and support from the government. Several other great questions were asked, including Hishom Prastyo Akbar’s question on how Zhicheng handles situations in which they are asked to represent both the plaintiff and defendant in the same case, the response to which was working with various other organizations to determine what is in the best interests of the child.
Director Tong wrapped up the morning session with a call for support in Zhicheng’s mission to move beyond China’s borders and create an international cooperative of child protection lawyers. He asked the members of the seminar to discuss how to increase awareness of Zhicheng’s objectives and their own through the use of social media. He emphasized the importance of working together to spread our goals to the general public, and hoped that throughout the afternoon there would be a good conversation on how exactly to achieve that while considering societal, cultural, and legal differences between each of our countries.
Attractive social media forms and effective technological tools to promote NGO work was the topic of this afternoon’s session. The concurring idea amongst participants was that social media is a highly effective tool when complimented with various other on-the-ground approaches. Social media itself can be ineffectual and often lead to more confusion, congestion and distraction when employed without strong and clearly formulated aims. Stavros Milionis raised that it is necessary to not only harness social media but also apply a lateral approach to reinforce the benefits of social media. Catherine Scerri agreed with this approach to leverage the effectiveness of social media by building meaningful human relationships outside of the electronic space and at a personal more human level.
Most refreshingly, Maxim raised the importance of social and emotional intelligence as a key skill for anyone managing NGOs and networks. To create effective and clear communication channels, there must be solid human-to-human connection. For this human connection, directors and managers must be able to firstly possess general people managing skills such as a formidable personality, up to date on all topical and relevant issues, technologies, laws and policies. The consolidation and possession of these skills endear leaders to their workers, expedite access to information and establish legitimacy and respect amongst different tiers of the organisation. Attached to these general skills, NGO and network leaders must possess innate people and personality insights so that they can tailor their communication styles to other workers and stakeholders, further improving communication lines internally.
The final segment of the afternoon session was defined by Mariya Brestnichka’s “consensus workshop” guided by the question: what are the most practical and realistic ways to contribute to the continuation of the work here? Participants split into groups of three to four and innovated different ways to continue the work after the Global Participation seminar, in the form of “Global South Network”. These ideas were then grouped into different categories including: Activities on national level; technical support; capacity building; products; advocacy; platform for sharing. Some of the ideas falling within these categories put forward included cross-border technical support and a worldwide observatory for children’s rights to make observations after reviewing the reports prepared by members of the network. The group finished with a round-table discussion on how these ideas may be implemented with resolve to come back tomorrow and crystallise ideas and put them into practice.