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Traditionally, dependent children are represented by either Philadelphia’s Support Center for Child Advocates, or volunteer lawyers performing pro bono services through the Bar, or sole practitioners. Penn’s Child Advocacy Clinic presents a fourth option to provide superior child advocacy while giving students a unique learning opportunity. Situated at a premier research university the clinic is free from the pressures of having to generate revenue as a law firm is, or to carry an unmanageable docket of cases as many social service agencies are. Penn has willing students eager to learn and practice child advocacy, and many seize opportunities to learn other disciplines through relevant coursework across campus.

“Our students are the front line lawyers for these cases,” Professor Lerner explains. “They deal with city agencies under my direct and daily supervision as well as that of Dr. Christian. We provide a level of attention and resources that is to some extent different from other schools.” Although some law schools have child advocacy clinics, they are often under the umbrella of a family clinic. Penn Law School’s Civil Practice Clinic historically has taken on those kinds of cases and will continue that tradition.

“Every time a law student advocate stands up in court, at a meeting or at a home visit and says, ‘We need to do better for this child,’ it reminds everyone within earshot (Judges, Department of Human Services workers, schools and families) of the critical importance of this work,” says Smith- Hoban. “ The energy and dedication the clinic students bring to their work is a sign of the hope for the child welfare system in general.”

The knowledge the Law students gain is fostered not only by the expert practitioners with whom they study, but also by interaction with students outside the profession. For example, 2002 graduate Vanessa Coke Cohen worked on the case of a child with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) whose parents were struggling to find social and medical services to care for the child’s needs.

“Working with the medical students is a great idea,” comments Coke Cohen. “They bring a necessary perspective to the table and are able to pick up on developmental problems and other needs that are important to know when you assess a child and attempt to recommend what it is that they need.”

The Child Advocacy Clinic will enter its second year of operation this Fall. Vanessa Coke Cohen joins Simpson Thacher & Bartlett as an associate in New York but will not forget the experience she had in the Clinic at Penn. Further down the road she plans to start an organization that advocates for children’s rights.

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