Fighting for children, not over them
Filling an advocacy gap
When Melissa Patterson ’06 signed up for a clinical placement through the school’s new Child Advocacy Program this year, she was looking for something as “real-world” as possible. By the time she was done, she’d helped a father give up the child he loved but couldn’t take care of—his pain lessened only by hope for his child’s future.
Patterson was one of 20 students participating in a new clinical program focused on advocating for children’s rights and interests. The program is part of CAP, developed in 2004 by Professor Elizabeth Bartholet ’65 and Lecturer on Law Jessica Budnitz ’01 as a way to address an advocacy gap in the representation of children.
But the program is not designed simply to train students to go into court to represent kids. Its goal is to encourage students to think critically about different approaches to social change and to expose them to the myriad ways in which they can affect law and policy to create a better world for children.
Working through a mediation program, Patterson helped negotiate open adoptions as an alternative to contested court proceedings for children in foster care. The placement appealed to her because it wasn’t adversarial. “It’s not about legal positions so much as it is making people’s emotional needs match,” she said.
In fact, she found that her first client meeting with a young father facing termination of his parental rights felt more like a counseling session. Patterson worked with a facilitator who negotiated with the birth and adoptive parents separately and then helped work out the details of an agreement in joint sessions. She said it was an empowering process for both sets of parents, and gave the son a permanent home and the birth father continued contact with him. It also avoided costly litigation. But the process was not without emotional costs. Patterson says the look in the birth father’s eyes as the agreement was finalized will haunt her for the rest of her life. “It’s a complex emotion,” she reflected, “because I know what is making him so sad is, in a way, what is giving this child a new chance on life.”
What makes the CAP clinic unique, according to Bartholet, the program’s faculty director, is that students are involved in some two dozen organizations using a range of approaches to accomplish social change. While students learn about their individual organizations, they also meet weekly in the classroom to share their experiences and learn from each other’s placements.
While Patterson worked to avoid litigation over the termination of parental rights, Emily Kernan ’07 focused on speeding up the judicial process once an appeal has been filed. Under the current system in Washington state, where Kernan worked over winter term, children can languish in foster care for up to three years before they are eligible for adoption. Doing research for a state court committee, she interviewed more than 50 stakeholders—trial and appellate attorneys, court clerks, social workers—involved in the appeals process to get their perspective on the cause of delays. She found deeply rooted bureaucratic problems, but she also helped identify smaller, easily fixable inefficiencies that contributed to significant delays. Her findings will form the basis of the committee’s recommendations for proposed changes for the state.
Some of the placements allowed students doing policy work to get firsthand experience seeing how that policy affects children’s lives. In recent years, Massachusetts legislators and the courts have sought to reform a 1973 statute which allows a court to intervene in the lives of troubled children. Victoria Schwartz ’07 analyzed data for the Cambridge Juvenile Court to determine whether judges are effective at keeping these children in need of services (CHINS) out of the delinquency system. But it was her experience sitting in on closed sessions, watching young children in handcuffs or runaways in their pajamas appear before a judge, that helped her see the bigger picture and gave her an understanding of what is at stake in the lives of these children.
Like Schwartz, Nick Rose ’07 worked in the courts, but he was part of a team of prosecutors, victims’ advocates and medical specialists in a unit of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in Boston dedicated to prosecuting child abuse. One of his first assignments was to prepare a 14-year-old girl to testify to being sexually abused by her stepfather. Rose says the first time he met the victim, he was sure he was more nervous than she was. “I just didn’t want to make any mistakes,” he said. Watching her relive the abuse on the stand, while the defense attorney pressed for details, Rose says he felt conflicted by the desire to prosecute offenders and the desire to make sure the child wasn’t further traumatized.
One of Bartholet and Budnitz’s priorities in creating the Child Advocacy Program was to build a home for students to find support and inspiration to contribute in their future careers to advancing children’s interests. As a result of their clinical experience, Rose says he is now considering a career in child advocacy, while Kernan is now interested in pursuing the policy aspects of the work. Schwartz plans to focus on child advocacy as part of her future pro bono work at a law firm, and Patterson, who says she is on an academic track, adds she might one day like to adopt a child.
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