Child Advocacy Clinic rewarding for students while benefitting Piedmont children

Group photo of attendees of a Child Advocacy Clinic sponsored lunch, Spring 2012

The Child Advocacy Clinic sponsored a lunch in Spring 2012 with (back row) Judge George Bedsworth ('78), Judge Laurie Hutchins ('86), Greer Gunther ('12), Pate Richardson ('13), Marc Rigsby ('12), Clinic Director Iris Sunshine ('89), (front row) Naomi Huntington ('12), Shayla Miller ('13) and Judge Lisa Menefee.

Bob Rosenberg (’11) describes his semester with the inaugural class of the Child Advocacy Clinic in Fall 2010 as the most rewarding experience he had at Wake Forest law school. As the result of his team’s efforts, a young child was permitted to remain in the custody of his grandmother, in a nurturing and drug-free home.

“My partner and I worked on behalf of a 2-year-old boy stuck in the middle of a high-conflict custody case,” Rosenberg said.  “We conducted interviews with witnesses and even had the opportunity to testify in court.”  He continued, “The CLC staff did a tremendous job not only teaching us the relevant law, but also helping us to make valuable connections throughout the courthouse.  I would recommend the Child Advocacy Clinic to any student wanting to gain practical experience outside of the classroom.”

The Child Advocacy Clinic, which began in August 2010, is the law school’s newest clinic.  The clinic is designed to teach students the best practices of representing children’s interests in high-conflict custody cases, civil domestic violence actions and in issues involving the public school system.  According to Director Iris Sunshine (’89), who is also the executive director of the Children’s Law Center of Central North Carolina (CLC), clinic students have worked more than 2,010 hours on behalf of the best interests of more than 50 children in the community to date.

“The Child Advocacy Clinic offers students invaluable real-world legal training and experience while enabling the CLC to expand its reach and serve more children,” Sunshine said.

The Children’s Law Center of Central North Carolina was founded in 2005 by Penny Spry (’82), and Amy Kuhlman as a 501(c) (3) not-for-profit organization.  Sunshine joined the CLC in November 2008.  The CLC has grown to a staff of five; three full-time and two part-time employees.

“Our mission is to provide children with quality legal advocacy focusing on domestic violence issues, high-conflict custody cases, and ensuring access to education,” Sunshine said. “Our ultimate goal is to enable children to grow up in safe environments and to become emotionally healthy adults.”

The CLC is the only non-profit organization in North Carolina representing the best interests of children in domestic violence cases in the courtroom, according to Sunshine.

The Child Advocacy Clinic is housed at the CLC and typically enrolls six to eight students a semester working under the supervision of CLC attorneys to provide a voice for children embroiled in Chapter 50B domestic violence cases and Chapter 50 high conflict custody cases. District Court judges appoint CLC staff to act as Guardians ad Litem (GAL) for these children.  Sunshine explained that “students in the Child Advocacy Clinic serve as the voices of the children in the courtroom and act as the eyes and ears of the Court.”

Sunshine said law students in the clinic may also have the opportunity to represent children in issues involving the public school system. Parents contact the CLC if their child is not receiving necessary services from the schools, particularly if they have an education plan for meeting special needs (an IEP). In addition, some parents may reach out to the CLC for help if they believe their child has been wrongfully suspended or expelled from school.

The clinic consists of two components: field work and the seminar. Students study the various models for representing children – as lawyer advocate, as lawyer Guardian ad Litem, and as non-lawyer Guardian ad Litem – and analyze the ethical issues raised in the various settings. They also study the procedural and substantive law involved in deciding the custody issue in both the family law and the domestic violence settings and in representing children in the educational setting. Students work in teams of two on cases that have been referred from the District Courts.

Former clinical student Tara Tannehill (’11) described serving as a Guardian ad Litem for children in cases of domestic violence and high conflict custody situations as very rewarding.

“As I observed court proceedings, it became abundantly clear that appointing GALs to represent the best interests of children involved in situations of domestic violence and high-conflict custody disputes was a very valuable resource for the court,” she said.  “In addition to the satisfaction of knowing that I advocated on behalf of children who would not otherwise be represented in court, my internship at the Children’s Law Center provided a great deal of exposure to the district court system… That sort of firsthand experience was invaluable for helping to improve my own advocacy skills.”

In order to work on a case, students must complete Guardian ad Litem training.

“It is the same training that we use for attorneys, such as those from Kilpatrick Townsend, who volunteer their time to the CLC for the high-conflict custody cases,” Sunshine explained. “Students are required to observe the domestic violence courts and juvenile court, in order to better understand what it is that we do, and why we do it. Then, students will work with a teammate on a case in conjunction with any one or more of our staff at the Children’s Law Center.”

Sunshine added that students do what staff attorneys at the Children’s Law Center do; work a case from the ground up. Students learn how to prepare and file an order, interview children, review civil and criminal records pertaining to the parents, interview the parties, conduct home visits, and prepare a written report for the court with their findings, concerns and recommendations.

“Students interview teachers, relatives, neighbors, friends, pediatricians, therapists, DSS workers, law enforcement officers, coaches, among others; it just really depends on each case as they are all quite different,” Sunshine said. “The students need to be prepared to make an oral report to the court because the judge will often ask for only an oral report or for additional comments to a written report. Some students have had the opportunity to testify in court regarding their investigation.

“Through their work with the CLC, the clinic students are exposed to a wide variety of situations and people including judges, lawyers and other professionals that will actually make them more marketable when they go out in to the work place.”

Nigel Vanderford (’12) worked on four Chapter 50B domestic violence cases during the Fall 2011 semester.

“I want to work in family law, and I got a better understanding of what exactly it means to figure out the best interests of the child, and that will really help me going forward,” he said. “I’ve got all kinds of things I can rely on and make an argument for my client, for what the child’s best interest is in that situation because I have seen so many different levels. It really helps you gain confidence in the court room, because there is so much experience working with the attorneys and the judge to hammer out a custody arrangement for this child. I can’t speak highly enough about the class.”

Students become vested in their cases and want to see the outcome, Sunshine added. “Some of our cases are not resolved during the course of the semester yet the students will return for court hearings and even to testify,” she said.  “The law students truly enjoy their work and are committed to advocating for the children in their case.”

Brittany Sajbel (‘12) was Vanderford’s partner and enthusiastically described her experience to prospective Child Advocacy Clinic students, “You have so many different people involved, so many backgrounds, so many experiences, that at the end of the semester you go away wishing you had one more case.”

In addition to teaching students about the law involving custody disputes and domestic violence and the practical application of what they have learned in law school, Sunshine explained that the Child Advocacy Clinic has another goal.

“Our hope is that after taking this course and working with the Children’s Law Center, the students will be inspired to continue to advocate for children,” she said. “We encourage the students as they launch their careers to consider serving as a pro bono attorney with a non-profit organization or for an individual in an area about which they are passionate.”

Tannehill began making plans last year for her career.  “As I prepare to leave law school and begin my legal career, I take my experiences at the Children’s Law Center with me.  I plan to fulfill my pro bono requirement through the Guardian ad Litem program, hoping to make an impact in my community the way the Children’s Law Center has done in Winston-Salem.”

Executive Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Suzanne Reynolds describes the Child Advocacy Clinic as the latest component of the law school’s larger effort to enrich the experiential learning available to students through its Applied Legal Theory – Law in Action program.  “We hope the new Child Advocacy Clinic will expand the collaborative learning experiences and match the law school’s goal of a more integrative learning experience,” Reynolds said.

The law school, under the direction of Dean Blake Morant, is expanding clinical opportunities, and exploring metropolitan externships and other methods of integrating the classroom with the realities of legal practice as part of the new program.  “Our students, our alumni, and even some prospective students are very excited about this new clinic and the new opportunities it will provide to help the children of our area,” Reynolds said.

Sunshine added: “We have been very pleased with all of the work the students have done that have come through the clinic,” she said. “More importantly, we have been impressed by their dedication and commitment to advocating for children exposed to the horrors of domestic violence and the strain of adult conflicts.”