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CHAMPIONS for CHILDREN

Gene Balloun, L’54

1,200 adoptions and counting Children find ‘forever families’ through grad’s pro bono efforts ene Balloun has tried more than 100 jury trials and argued just as many appellate cases. He’s a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. In a career spanning more than 50 years, he has earned a reputation as an accomplished, respected commercial attorney. “But if somebody asked what I’m really proud of, I’d be proudest of my work with children,” he said. Balloun, L’54, has completed more than 1,200 adoptions of foster children. He handles the adoptions on a pro bono basis. But rather than decline payment, he and his law firm — Shook, Hardy & Bacon — invest the state fees in a scholarship fund to help send foster kids to college. As of September, the fund had provided more than $800,000 to upwards of 600 students. Balloun’s advocacy for children doesn’t stop there. He and his wife, former school teacher Sheila Wombles, provided a stable, loving home for 29 kids during a 15-year run as foster parents. They legally adopted the first and last of those children, and would have adopted more if circumstances had allowed. “Relatives would show up at the last minute, that sort of thing,” Balloun recalled. “We had a lot of heartbreak.” And a lot of joy. Not long after training to become foster parents in the mid-1980s, the couple received word that a 14-month-old boy needed a home. Balloun was trying a federal case in Wichita when his wife called and said the state wanted an answer by that afternoon. “Let’s do it,” Balloun replied. “I got home that evening, and my secretary had found a baby bed and bought diapers. All of a sudden we were in the kid business.” Right away Balloun and Wombles got a heavy dose of the broken child welfare system. It took nearly three years and a contentious trial to terminate parental rights before the couple could

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adopt that first little boy. David was his name. He turned 30 this year. During that uncertain time, Balloun and Wombles joined a support group for foster parents. Balloun became a trusted legal advisor for other parents in the group and soon began handling their adoptions. That led to broader advocacy for children. He challenged Missouri over inadequate subsidies for foster parents and defended the Kansas law providing for the educational rights of undocumented students. When the Olathe School Board banned “Annie on My Mind,” a book about two teenage girls who fall in love, Balloun helped represent students and parents in a successful federal lawsuit. In the 1995 ruling, the judge ordered the schools to put the book back on library shelves and pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees. “We used those fees to create the Johnson County First Amendment Foundation,” Balloun said. “We present programs to educate high school students about the Constitution and their rights.” For example, in 2013 the Foundation hosted Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who spoke to an audience of 1,000 high school students. Balloun advances children’s interests on the boards of FosterAdopt Connect, Kansas Appleseed and EmberHope. One of the many plaques and trophies on his office shelves anoints him a “Champion for Children.” All this from a Russell native who wanted to be a chemical engineer when he came to the University of Kansas in 1947. Derailed by a required engineering drawing course, Balloun gravitated to the business school, and later to Green Hall. The high school and college debater found his calling in the law. After two years in the Air Force, Balloun practiced law in his hometown and later in Great Bend. He landed at Shook, Hardy & Bacon about 30 years ago. When he moved from the firm’s

KU Law Magazine | Fall 2016  

Performing pro bono adoptions of foster children, standing up against school bullies, ensuring kids come first in family disputes: Meet a fe...