Pro Bono Spotlight: Penny Spry (’82)

Penny Spry (‘82), co-founder and director of the Children’s Law Center of Central North Carolina, helps to give a voice to children in domestic violence cases and high-conflict custody cases through the center.  In addition to that job of helping children, Spry volunteers for the Department of Social Services’ Guardian ad Litem program.

One of Penny Spry’s children – not her own, but one of the many she has served across the Winston-Salem community – had a particularly difficult situation.

His mother suffered from mental disabilities, with an IQ of 52. The court placed the child, at three days old, with a man who thought he was the child’s father, along with the putative father’s mother. The supposed father beat the child repeatedly and went to federal prison. The court left the child living with his grandmother, where he was happy and taken care of. Then, while the supposed father was in jail, he found out he wasn’t the child’s father. So the grandmother simply dropped the child off at the Department of Social Services and drove away.

Finally, earlier this fall, after working passionately on this case, Spry helped place the homeless child in the guardianship of a man who managed the group home where the child had been placed. The child is in high school now, is on the honor roll, and is on his way to college.

It can get messy, helping kids. But for Spry, when the children become productive citizens, it’s all worth it.

“This child did nothing to deserve his plight in life.” Spry said of this particular child. “However, I can’t take credit that he is finally in a happy home environment. The child’s mentor and now guardian (the manager of the group home) should have all the credit for stepping up to the plate.”

Spry may shy away from praise, but there’s no questioning her influence on Winston-Salem and the surrounding areas since she founded the Children’s Law Center in 2005, along with Amy Kuhlman. With more than 100 cases, the Children’s Law Center is the sole legal entity in the state which represents children in domestic violence cases. CLC also gives a voice to children in high-conflict custody cases.
The organization is closely tied with law students, who serve as interns as part of a recently added course the law school calls Children in Domestic Violence. The interns do their classroom component at Wake Forest law school and then go to the Children’s Law Center for their externship. They are trained as Guardians ad Litem, then closely supervised at CLC to represent the “best interests” of children in domestic violence cases.

“The energy that the students bring to our office is totally invigorating,” Spry said. “They help CLC take on more cases for children. The students get hands-on experience at the courthouse and get to know the judges. This practical experience ultimately makes them more marketable. So it’s a win-win proposition for all of us.”

A mother of three, Spry’s current position suits her perfectly. After serving three years as a press secretary on Capitol Hill, she came to Wake Forest to pursue her law degree. She started her law career as a corporate attorney in Winston-Salem.
But then she and her husband began to have children. She stayed home to raise them for more than 20 years. “Being a mother is my favorite thing,” she said.

When her boys started going to college, she was approached by Kuhlman to help with a program called the Child Advocacy Project (CAP). Kuhlman had started CAP at the Legal Aid Society. But Spry and Kuhlman soon realized that the Legal Aid Society couldn’t represent children of parents who had been previously served by the Legal Aid Society, because it was a legal conflict of interest. So they recruited pro bono attorneys from the law firm Kilpatrick Stockton, LLP. Although Kilpatrick Stockton attorneys were enthusiastic about helping, the caseload became unwieldy. So, Spry and Kuhlman moved all of the children’s cases to a nonprofit that they founded, where there would be no conflict of interested from representing the parent.

In the early days of the Children’s Law Center, Spry and Kuhlman paid all the bills. Soon, though, through word of mouth, the donations came. First, there were in-kind donations such as sticky notes and office supplies. Then monetary donations started coming. Then grants. Now, the organization is fully functioning, handling about 130 cases a year – a figure that grows every year.

Suzanne Reynolds (’77), who started her career as a Wake Forest law professor in 1981 while Spry was a student, helped create the Children in Domestic Violence course and also has served as a CLC board member.

“Totally because she saw a need, she just stepped in to fill that niche,” Reynolds said of Spry. “It’s the best of what you hope happens to people with a legal education, that they use their law degree to fill a legal void for people who need someone to speak for them.”

The nonprofit has about 20 volunteer attorneys who donate hundreds of hours per year, and a continuous stream of interns from Wake Forest. Recent Albert Schweitzer Fellowship recipient Rich McPherson (’10) is doing his fellowship work at the CLC. McPherson said Spry, who regularly speaks to Wake Forest law students who are interested in public service, is a great ambassador for the nonprofit.

“You can just tell that she’s one of those people who’s doing exactly what she wants to do,” McPherson said. “And if you’re doing what you want to do, you’re more excited about your work. She’s also really good about being honest about the tough situations that these children face. There are a lot of kids who have pretty difficult situations, who have bad family lives, who have no voice in a custody dispute.”

Spry continues to help children like the young boy who went from mom to supposed dad to grandmother to foster home and soon, to college, get ahead.

“It sounds so cliché that children are the future,” Spry said. “But stop and think about this, if we don’t get our arms around violence and stop it, they just perpetuate it to the next generation. Exponentially, these children have a couple of children of their own, the numbers of violent households will simply grow out of control. It’s our only chance at helping to thwart household violence. It’s just one child at a time.”