Disney Legal’s Pro Bono Adoption Program Helps Create ‘Forever Families’

On November 17, 2017, more than 32 Disney lawyers, paralegals and administrators were part of some real-life magic at the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park, California, for the 18th annual National Adoption Day in Los Angeles. The Disney volunteers were on hand to assist with the adoption of 17 children, joining hundreds of representatives from corporations and law firms from around Los Angeles County for the festive and celebratory day. Over the course of the afternoon, more than 200 children were officially adopted by their “forever families.”

Adoption work is the signature pro bono project of Disney Legal’s Southern California offices. Under the leadership of Senior Executive Vice President, General Counsel & Secretary Alan Braverman, the pro bono program launched in August 2013 in partnership with the nonprofit Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro bono law firm. Public Counsel provides training and support to volunteer attorneys from major law firms and corporations who then offer free legal assistance to more than 30,000 children, youth, families and community organizations each year. A similar adoption pro bono program has also been established in The Walt Disney Company’s New York offices through a partnership with the New York-based nonprofit Mobilization for Justice. Disney’s legal pro bono program is just one example of a Company skills-based volunteer opportunity for its employees.

Rob Stevenson and Tina Aughinbaugh, with Chip and Dale at the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park, California, on National Adoption Day.

The Walt Disney Company led the way for entertainment companies to take on pro bono adoption cases. “It took a lot of work for us to be able to do the adoption program as an in-house legal department, because our structure is very different from a law firm,” says Associate Principal Counsel Rob Stevenson, who helps run the program in Southern California along with Principal Counsel Tina Aughinbaugh. Stevenson, Aughinbaugh and their team created training materials, originally intended for internal use by Disney attorneys, which Public Counsel now shares with other corporations and firms—many of which were inspired by Disney’s participation. “They felt that if this is a program that Disney has approved and is energized in, then this is something they should take a look at,” says Karen Ullman, supervising senior staff attorney, Children’s Rights, Public Counsel. “And now we have a lot of other studios participating as well, which is great for us and our families.”

Since the adoption program’s inception at Disney, more than 125 Disney Legal volunteers have helped to facilitate 223 adoptions company-wide. In addition to completing the adoption work, Disney’s lawyers have advocated for financial and medical benefits for their clients, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in benefits for adopting families who are often financially distressed. Disney Legal’s efforts were honored earlier this year with the 2016 Public Counsel Pro Bono Award, which recognized the “team’s dedication in handling multiple adoption cases, with an array of advocacy issues, and its tireless fight to obtain additional services and benefits for the most vulnerable youth.”

Recruitment for Disney’s pro bono adoption program has never been a challenge, says Aughinbaugh. The legal teams donate their time and skills, culminating with an immeasurable gift. “There’s something about sitting at the courtroom table with the clients and the child that they’re adopting and just watching the sheer emotion from them and everyone in the courtroom,” Aughinbaugh shares. “It’s just a moment of pure joy for everyone.”

Stevenson echoes that sentiment. “Some of these children have had really rough circumstances in their lives and haven’t had somebody that’s really taken care of them before these foster parents came into their lives. I see how life-changing it will be for them to now finally have a parent that really is permanent,” he says. “It’s amazing to be a part of giving that to them.”

Disney Legal’s pro bono program, which is run by Associate General Counsel Karen Frederiksen, undertakes additional projects on behalf of children, veterans, students and others. For example, Disney Legal has represented children from Central America who are subject to deportation and face the immigration system alone and veterans who seek to upgrade their discharge status and receive medical, mental health and other benefits. Disney’s lawyers have recently completed a detailed resource handbook for homeless youth in Florida, and they regularly participate in the Constitutional Rights Foundation’s mock trial program for high school and middle school students. “I am incredibly proud of our ever-expanding pro bono program,” Frederiksen says. “Our tremendous growth over the last four years has only been possible because of the generous and thoughtful contributions of our Disney Legal volunteers. They give their time, their intelligence and their hearts. The result is breathtaking.”