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Training the Next Generation of Child Advocates
Rutgers-Camden law students represent children through Child and Family Advocacy Clinic
CAMDEN — A team of students from the Rutgers School of Law–Camden are lending their voices and support to children who are victims of abuse or neglect and cannot speak on their own behalf.
Students in Rutgers–Camden’s Child and Family Advocacy Clinic are being trained to represent children in court to protect their legal rights. The legal clinic allows the law students to represent children in administrative hearings and court proceedings to ensure they receive needed services, treatments, and financial support.
“We’re really able to advocate for children, ensure that their interests are represented in court, and that they have a voice,” says Yuliya Plyushcheva, a third-year law student from Cherry Hill. “By spending time with our clients, working the cases, and getting to know their world, we really try to create a little order and peace in their lives.”
Both the New Jersey State Bar Foundation and the state’s Office of Victim Witness Advocacy provide grant support to the clinic.
“Our focus is on developing individual representation for children who have disabilities or who are victims of abuse and neglect and involved with the Division of Youth and Family Services,” says Meredith Schalick, a clinical associate professor at the Rutgers School of Law–Camden. “A majority of children involved with DYFS are represented by the state’s Office of Law Guardian, part of the Public Defender’s office. I serve as a pool attorney for the Office of the Law Guardian, which refers the cases to me at the clinic. Then, I work with the students over the course of the semester to develop their skills to represent children in court.”
Students also represent children with disabilities in public benefits cases, but those cases come to the clinic from South Jersey Legal Services, rather than being appointed by the court as they are in DYFS cases.
The students undertake all the steps necessary to prepare for court hearings, which includes reviewing court and other documents from related cases or prior proceedings, preparing direct and cross examination, making strategic case decisions, and drafting documents.
“The students do all of the fact investigation, the interviewing, the brief writing, and the oral argument in front of the judge,” says Schalick, who is also a Rutgers–Camden graduate. “They spend 20-25 hours per week developing their lawyering skills and working on their cases.”
The preparation also requires the law students to spend many hours with the children. Plyushcheva says making a connection with the children so they feel comfortable talking to them is one of the most important parts of the clinic.
“Our clients have many strangers going in and out of their lives, including DYFS workers, therapists, and evaluators. This can be very confusing and stressful for the child, especially the young children,” Plyushcheva says. “We really try to focus on the child, answer any questions they may have, and communicate to them that we are there for their interests.”
In some of the cases, the law students collaborate with Rutgers–Camden’s graduate social work students.
“We try to incorporate a multidisciplinary approach and consider the social work needs of our clients and their families,” Schalick says.
The law students view the hands-on clinic as an indispensible part of their professional development.
“I use the skills that I developed in the Child and Family Advocacy Clinic nearly every day in my family law practice,” says Lynda Hinkle, a 2009 graduate of the Rutgers School of Law–Camden who now owns her own family law practice with offices in Marlton and Blackwood. “My clinic experience helped me to understand the complicated dynamics of families in which there is abuse and neglect, and also how to help clients to locate resources and navigate the system.”
As with all clinics at the law school, Schalick says the focus of the Child and Family Advocacy Clinic is helping to meet the legal needs of the citizens of Camden, especially at-risk children.
“The clinic’s mission is to help children and families while allowing law students to develop the skills, judgment, and confidence to be successful lawyers,” she says. “I feel privileged to have a front row seat as my students become child advocates.”
For more information about the Child and Family Advocacy clinic, visit camlaw.rutgers.edu/child-and-family-advocacy.
Media Contact: Ed Moorhouse