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Child Advocacy Clinic Starts Up at Penn

The Gittis Center for Clinical Legal Studies expanded its offerings with the introduction of the Child Advocacy Clinic this Spring. The clinic is codirected by Practice Professor Alan Lerner and Cindy Christian M.D. of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) to offer students interdisciplinary training in child advocacy. Dr. Christian is a pediatrician who also co-directs Safe Place: The Center for Child Protection and Health at CHOP. Additionally, Diane Smith-Hoban, a child advocate social worker assigned by the Family Court of Philadelphia, participated in the class to provide oversight and advice regarding working with the city’s social service agencies.

The model is to create teams within the class in a weekly seminar. In its debut, the clinic comprised students from the Law School, Penn’s School of Medicine, and the graduate program of the School of Social Work.

“Our clinical experience was pretty intense,” says Vanessa Coke Cohen L'02. “We were thrust into an interdisciplinary world that did not always work together so well. Child advocates – attorneys or otherwise – often deal with other players in the system who feel that child advocates are duplicative in the process and are more of an annoyance than necessary, and legitimate, participants in protecting a child’s best interests.”

Noting that the practice of law is not an isolated endeavor within the profession, Professor Lerner stresses the value of interdisciplinary teaching and learning in the Clinic. “Life is not isolated. The work our students are going to do will require them to work with people in other disciplines. Why not have a graduate-level nursing student or a psychiatry student or an education student in class with a law student?”

Vanessa Coke Cohen comments, “I learned that relationship building is essential in the world of child advocacy – I would argue that it’s even more important than the legal aspects of child advocacy.”

The Child Advocacy Clinic is appointed by the Dependency Branch of the Philadelphia Family Court (Dependency Court) to advocate for children, from newborn to age 18, who are in dependency petitions. These children are defined by the City as “abused, abandoned, neglected, truant or ungovernable.” As is often the case, Dependency Court is underfunded and undersupported in proportion to the needs of the community. Lerner estimates that over 4,000 dependency petitions were filed in the last year in Philadelphia to be decided by a bench of only seven judges.

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