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Superstar child welfare attorney Marcia Robinson Lowry is accustomed to getting child welfare bureaucracies to do her bidding, usually as the result of devastating class action lawsuits filed by her organization, Children’s Rights, Inc. Less celebrated than her legal prowess, though, is her equally dazzling use of the media. Last week, Lowry’s press savvy helped her turn a modest case into a clamor for reform.

In late 1998, Lowry chose to relinquish her strongest legal weapon. As part of a settlement she signed with New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, she agreed to a two-year ban on class action lawsuits against ACS. Class action suits are the show-stoppers of the legal world, allowing one case to change the fate of hundreds or thousands. Cases filed on behalf of only one client don’t have the same weight, legally or politically.

But though Lowry’s latest legal challenge seeks redress for only one mother and her son, it has been playing bigger in the court of public opinion. The suit, Jeremy M. v. Giuliani, alleges that ACS wrongly kept a child in foster care for two and a half years without any legal basis. The suit has provided a ready-made opportunity for the press to point out that there are currently more than 2,500 children in the same boat.

Though the case cannot immediately result in help for them, said Children’s Rights Staff Attorney Ira Lustbader, he hopes that “the city will be compelled to do something for the other children.”

This lawsuit also represents a change of direction for Children’s Rights. The organization almost always pushes child welfare agencies to keep a more responsible hold on foster kids, but this suit aims to get children who shouldn’t be in foster care out of the system entirely.

While expressing regret that the case may not be as effective as a class action, one of Lowry’s loudest critics applauds her new interest in parents’ rights. “Lowry’s whole career has been about getting kids into care,” said Urban Justice Center founder Doug Lasdon. “This is a welcome addition to her work.”

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