Todd wins Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award
After Stephen M. Todd worked a pro bono child dependency case in the Tampa Bay area several years ago, he couldn’t refuse taking on additional cases, despite the tragedies he saw.
He once represented a boy whose mother’s method of discipline was to ram her son’s head against a wall until he fell unconscious.
In another matter, he entered a home, which was actually a filthy hotel room, where the mother was so drugged by fentanyl and oxycodone, she couldn’t get up to feed her three small children.
Such cases are commonplace in Florida, according to Todd, and we can’t turn a blind eye.
Todd’s message at the Supreme Court, upon accepting the most prestigious statewide honor for pro bono service — the 2018 Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award — was to ask attorneys to take a pro bono case this year. Just one. (Watch the Pro Bono Service Awards Ceremony 2018.)
Because just a single case changed the course of Todd’s future as an attorney, and he has donated more than 2,000 pro bono hours over his 27 years as a Florida Bar member.
“The problem is there is an epidemic of child neglect and abuse in our state and in our nation. And the problem is getting worse. Every weekday, courtrooms in Florida are jam packed with children and their caregivers looking for solutions from an overworked court system…,” Todd said. “A starting point to help deal with this epidemic problem is if many people stand up and say, ‘I am for the child,’ and then act on it.”
Todd, who works at the Hillsborough County Attorney’s Office in Tampa, explained that in Hillsborough alone, 1,650 children were sheltered in 2017. That’s four children per day, he said, removed from their homes, placed into an unfamiliar system, requiring that their cases are worked. Each child needs an advocate, Todd implored, and “caseworkers are overwhelmed.”
Rosemary Armstrong, the 2012 winner of the Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award, started an organization called Crossroads for Florida Kids in Tampa, where Todd said he became more comfortable advocating for children.
“I can’t fix everything in these children’s lives. It was a mess before I got there, it will be a mess after I leave,” Todd said. “But I can do a little bit for them. I can listen to them. I can be their advocate when no one has ever advocated for them. I can show them what it means to care. I can give them my best advice. I can describe for the judge what is really going on in that child’s life so that I am the eyes of the judge in that child’s home.”
Todd’s favorite client, Justin, is 19 and considers himself a “lady’s man” who likes to educate his friends on how to properly wear cologne, according to Todd. At 17, Justin’s parents lost their parental rights, and the young man was entangled in a complex court system and shuffled between temporary homes. Todd helped him navigate the system and make life choices at 18. When Justin was recently stopped by police for driving without a license — because a learning disability interfered with his ability to pass the driver’s test — Todd helped the young man study. Justin passed the test, and the charges were dismissed.
“There’s no way in 2006, when I started on this journey, I could have imagined that I’d be enriched by spending time with a 19-year-old who is lecturing me about how to apply colognes,” Todd said. “These cases can be very sad, but likewise, very rewarding. You can accomplish so much for a child by doing so very little for a child.”
The pro-bono advocate said Florida contains an army of volunteers among its thousands of lawyers, and managing attorneys can set an example and encourage others to take pro bono cases.
“Each one of you needs to find your own niche if you haven’t already, to find that area of pro bono where you can serve. Serving the children happens to be mine,” Todd said.
“Maybe your role can be to encourage others to take one case this year. Frederick Douglass once said, ‘It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.’ I am for the child. Will you join me?”