I love law school, but at times it’s easy to feel isolated from the real world amid all of the studying. By the time March of my first year rolled around, more hands-on experience was exactly what I needed so I participated in Alternative Spring Break this year at the Council for Children’s Rights in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Alternative Spring Break program at UVA offers students the opportunity to spend one week doing pro bono at a partner organization. I chose the Council for Children’s Rights (CFCR), a non-profit organization that handles delinquency defense, mental health representation, custody advocacy, guardian ad litem work, special education representation, and policy and community advocacy for children in North Carolina.
My LPS mentor, Gina Sato, volunteered at this organization last year and encouraged me to go. I am interested in everything child advocacy, so I was beside myself the entire week at CFCR. The attorneys were kind enough to plan an entire schedule for us, which involved workshops, lunches with staff, court observations, and research. They went out of their way to make the trip a valuable experience for me and the two other UVA volunteers.
When the attorneys gave us our research assignments on the first day, I was thrilled. It’s not every day in law school that you get to research matters you actually care about. My topics dealt with juvenile justice issues, specifically state statutes’ provisions for reverse transfer of juveniles from adult to juvenile court and juvenile competency to stand trial standards. I found this work immensely rewarding because in my career as a juvenile defender, these issues will directly affect the lives of my future clients.
I have several specific memories that stand out from my time in Charlotte. One occurred while we observed Youth Treatment Court. That particular day, several children had come for review of their progress. The child, parents, and social workers would stand and testify to the child’s effort to achieve the mandated progress. The judge would announce how many consecutive days the child had remained substance-free, give him or her a certificate, and everyone in the courtroom would stand and clap. The judge had previously ordered one teenage boy to give a presentation on the lessons he learned from his time in recovery. He read a long, insightful letter to the court, explaining why he turned to drugs in the first place and the many ways that his life changed once he stopped using drugs, including the restoration of his relationship with his father. His realization that he likes himself much better sober moved me and everyone else in the room.
Another day, I had the opportunity to attend a service planning team meeting for a CFCR client at a Youth Development Center (youth prison). The boy, his therapists, a couple teachers and social workers, and his two attorneys from CFCR attended. While the circumstances of the meeting were sad, I enjoyed seeing this young man lead the table of adults in establishing a plan for a successful transition after his release. While the justice system had taken much of his autonomy, in this space he exercised his voice, and those in the room listened and followed.
My third memory contrasts the previous in showing that often, the juvenile justice system does not account for children’s stories. One day, I watched as the court moved through detention hearing after detention hearing. Not one kid that day got a favorable ruling that he or she could go home until adjudication. One of these children was a girl who had just come out of human trafficking and was in court that day for assaulting an employee at a treatment facility. The judge repeatedly emphasized that her own actions brought her to court that day, and that he had no problem with her waiting in juvenile detention. I was frustrated that the judge did not show more sensitivity toward her as a child dealing with trauma. In some ways, my observations of Mecklenburg County courts showed the ways that the juvenile justice system can make space for children’s voices and restorative approaches. However, this example shows that there is still much work to be done. I admired the attorneys at CFCR in the way that they helped their clients exercise a level of agency within the juvenile justice system.
After my week with CFCR, I returned to school with a renewed sense of purpose for studying the law. I came back with a clear vision of a career in juvenile defense and the skills I should develop to become like the lawyers I had observed at CFCR. I felt more compelled to find ways to begin making juvenile justice reform efforts while I’m in law school. I immediately started applying to juvenile justice pro bono and research opportunities the day after I returned, and the experience changed how I analyze my readings for my Criminal Procedure class. I would encourage everyone to take advantage of Alternative Spring Break – I am so happy I did.