Children’s Justice Clinic Serves Nebraska and Educates Law Students | Nebraska today
Law students at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln have a unique opportunity to serve the most vulnerable in the community, while gaining real-time legal experience.
The College of Law’s Children’s Justice Clinic serves the abused and neglected children of Lancaster County, and third-year students take charge of cases as an ad litem guardian.
In Nebraska, the guardian ad litem is the lawyer who represents the child in juvenile court, separate from the social worker and county attorney who may also be working on the case, said Michelle Paxton, clinic director. .
Since its inception, the clinic has gained a reputation for high quality advocacy and good working partners with community organizations including the county attorney’s office, the Department of Health and Human Services, and Legal Aid.
“On any given case, a student lawyer will work with a variety of professionals in different capacities, which will help them develop their skills for working with others and navigating many different personalities and positions,” Paxton said. “We are known for providing high quality advocacy to our clients.”
About eight students are accepted to be part of the program each year, then team up in groups of two to work between eight and 12 cases per year. As students study a case, they conduct an investigation, which involves interviewing all parties involved, knowing the families they work with, determining what the children need, and presenting those findings to court. .
There isn’t a typical situation, Paxton said, but students can expect to spend months on a case. Paxton oversees all cases, giving advice and lending expertise to students, monitoring them at hearings and evaluating their work.
Paxton receives referrals for cases and she reviews them to decide which would work best for students, as well as how families can benefit from the services offered by the clinic.
Paxton, a former County District Attorney for Douglas and Lancaster Counties, started the clinic in 2017 after working with the Nebraska Center on Children, Families and the Law.
“CCFL provides comprehensive training to all child welfare workers and works to improve systems and outcomes for children and families, ”said Paxton. “This is where I recognized the need for lawyers to receive the same type of training, through the prism of the law, so that they can be better lawyers.
Before taking on cases, students undergo rigorous training, which is a key part of the clinic’s mission to provide high quality advocacy for children.
“What makes our program unique is a partnership between the College of Law and the Center on Children, Families and the Law (in Nebraska) to ensure that students interested in this type of work receive training and skills needed to be high quality advocates. for kids, ”Paxton said. “When you represent children, it means understanding the complex circumstances families face as they enter the juvenile system. The partnership with CCFL enables program students to receive over 70 hours of expert training on all kinds of work-relevant issues, including substance use, domestic violence, poverty, trauma and child development.
Training continues throughout the semester with weekly sessions on certain topics. Students gain a lot from the training, beyond what they have learned in their law classes so far.
“Going through law school, you might see it as very black and white, and I think the clinical training does a great job of showing that there are shades of gray and reasons why families can find themselves in these special circumstances, be it domestic violence, drug addiction, mental illness or poverty, ”said Claudia Brock, May 2021 graduate and lawyer at a clinic. “The level of training that we receive allows us to face these complexities and to think very fully about the services we can offer to children and support for the family as a whole.
The work is difficult. Working with families who are going through some of the worst times of their lives can have emotional consequences. Paxton said the camaraderie among the students and the ability to work on cases as a team helps. It also incorporates reflective practice, where students meet and have facilitated conversations about their cases. Paxton said the conversations are aimed at acknowledging thoughts and feelings students may have about their work. Recognizing feelings and working through them helps ensure that students do not allow negative emotions to affect their decision making.
“It gives us a space to talk about some of the challenges we face and connect with other people in the clinic, who may be going through the same things and can give advice,” said Rachel Lowe, May 2021 graduate and lawyer at the clinic. . “It has been extremely helpful, but it is difficult. There are situations that are very revealing, but that is what makes the juvenile justice clinic very rewarding. You can work and interact with these families and hopefully advocate for a better life for them.