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Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic focuses on client-centered lawyering for the most vulnerable

July 09, 2020

Taught by Practice Professor of Law Kara Finck, Lecturer in Law Jennifer Nagda, and Clinical Supervisor of La Puerta Abierta Layla Ware de Luria, the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic (ICAC) offers University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School students the opportunity to help vulnerable young people navigate the legal system using holistic advocacy aimed at ensuring that all clients are treated with dignity and respect.

Because legal and social service needs are “inextricably intertwined” in this area, Finck said, clinic students are paired with graduate-level social work students on legal teams representing children and families. These teams work collaboratively on all aspects of cases – including interviewing, counseling, case development, and advocacy both in and out of court – enforcing legal rights that are often overlooked and undermined.

Fundamental to the clinic’s mission and teaching pedagogy is the concept of client-centered lawyering, which Finck said “serves to reframe the relationship and inherent power imbalance that has plagued the lawyer-client relationship. By placing the client at the center of the relationship, students expand their understanding of client goals and strategies to achieve those outcomes.”

According to clinic alum Jesse McGleughlin L ’20, students are taught to start with the assumption that “clients are the experts on their own lives.”

Over the years, the clinic has transformed the way many students think about the practice of law, and Finck now enjoys the ability to collaborate with alumni who have devoted their careers to helping families. Rachel Mark L ’14, for example, first learned about medical-legal partnerships during her time in the clinic as a student, and now she works for one. At Nurse-Family Partnership in Philadelphia, Mark connects pregnant clients with nurses who provide neonatal and pediatric homecare through the early years of a child’s life.

“I learned so much from the clinic about the significant impact we can have working with young children,” Mark said. “It was there that I learned about adverse childhood experiences and how critical the early development stage is for a child’s life trajectory.”

Today, Mark works closely with Finck for trainings and refers clients to the clinic.

“The clinic really emphasized the importance of working with professionals in different disciplines to reach the best outcomes for clients,” said Mark. “Yes, a court proceeding is inherently adversarial, but when the two competing interests are those of parents and their children, that’s an important, delicate relationship that doesn’t always have an obviously right or wrong answer.”

One of the keys to achieving the best possible outcome, said McGleughlin, is learning how to listen.

“When I began the clinic, I thought I knew how to interview clients, but I learned in the clinic that I need to have a purpose behind every question,” she said. “I learned that I need to effectively scaffold by, for example, telling a client ‘I am asking these personal questions about a history of trauma because this is necessary evidence for the legal standard at issue.’ I need to be able to explain the law in a clear and concise way. I need to be able to read a client’s body language and stop or slow down when the client gives signs that the questions are too much. I need to make sure that the client feels comfortable asking me questions. Professor Finck taught me early on that saying ‘Does that make sense?’ to a client is not an open question — there are only two answers, yes or no — but asking ‘Do you have any questions for me?’ is an open question. These are things I could not learn in a classroom. I learned them through careful practice and through the feedback provided by the instructors.”

In addition to mastering the details of effective client counseling, clinic students also get a crash course in what Finck described as “the complex systems impacting clients’ lives on a daily basis and the systemic injustice of those systems.”

Becoming acquainted with this injustice has inspired students to challenge what McGleughlin views as “the punitive approach of the child welfare system, which often removes children — and specifically Black children — from their parents without addressing the conditions that would allow families to remain together, conditions like poverty or lack of housing.”

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, the clinic quickly pivoted to ensure continuity of service for their clients, many of whom suddenly faced challenges including disrupted schooling, lost employment, lack of child care, and the inability to access ongoing services.

“Our first response,” said Finck, “was to partner with Youth Fostering Change and Youth Matters Philly to create a guide for young people in foster care during the pandemic.” The guide was made available via Instagram, the best way to connect with the clinic’s client population under the circumstances, and answers questions young people might have about things like accessing technology, where to find food resources, how to make decisions about their health, and how to stay connected with their support systems.

“The guide is now widely available and can be updated as policies and resources shift,” said Finck.

Because of the COVID-19 crisis, there is a need for the clinic’s work more than ever before, and Finck looks forward to the fall semester with “a full docket of cases representing youth in foster care, unaccompanied minors seeking Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, and pregnant and parenting teens through our work with Nurse Family Partnership.”

Finck noted that some work will continue to be reomote, but the law students will also appear in -person for court hearings and work directly with clients both in-person and through video-conferencing.

“Additionally, there will be a number of policy issues as states and counties reopen and our clients face challenges in accessing critical resources,” said Finck. “I plan to continue working with all of our community partners to provide legal information, resources and open clinics to address those needs. Students will be playing a critical role in that advocacy.”

Read more about Penn Law’s clinical and externship opportunities.