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Centering Youth Voices

April 19, 2022

Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic students represent their youth clients on a range of issues including dependency, custody, and education matters.

“Client-centered lawyering” has become an increasingly popular way to describe an intentional and inclusive client-lawyer relationship. In the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic (ICAC), youth clients are not only centered in the work — they lead it.

About ICAC

Kara Finck Kara FinckDirected by Practice Professor of Law Kara R. Finck, ICAC is one of nine Gittis Legal Clinics at the Law School, wherein students practice essential lawyering skills as they engage in real work under the supervision of experienced faculty supervisors. Through ICAC, law students and social work students work together to advocate for youth clients’ rights in the foster care system and access to educational, medical, and mental health resources.

A major component of ICAC advocacy involves representing youth clients as they navigate the child welfare system in Philadelphia. For both training and advocacy purposes, ICAC regularly partners with Juvenile Law Center, a public interest law firm in Philadelphia dedicated to fighting for policies in the child welfare and justice systems that better serve youth; as a part of its mission statement, the Juvenile Law Center balances the need for immediate harm reduction with a broader goal of abolishing these systems.

Empowering youth to teach law students

Within Juvenile Law Center, the Youth Fostering Change program empowers youth with lived experience in the Philadelphia child welfare system to engage and participate actively in advocating for and creating policy change.

Marcía Hopkins Marcía HopkinsEach semester, Finck collaborates with Juvenile Law Center’s Youth Advocacy Program staff, including Marcía Hopkins, Senior Manager of Youth Advocacy Program and Policy, to coordinate an educational panel for ICAC students. On the panel, Youth Advocates share their stories and answer questions from ICAC students on best practices in representing a youth client through the foster care system.

Hopkins emphasized that the goal of the program is to encourage ICAC students to think deeply about what it really means to center their clients’ needs in their representation.

“What does it actually look like in practice to say that you’re really going to allow the young person to lead, or to really make sure that they’re actively engaged?” Hopkins asked. “The words get thrown around, but they’re not really taught. How do you do that as an attorney?”

Hopkins and Finck work together with Youth Advocates to develop presentation topics. Sometimes, topics arise out of repeat struggles Finck notes her students are encountering during their work in the Clinic; other times, the Youth Advocates determine important points they would like to bring to the attention of ICAC students, based on their own past experiences.

Last year, George Frank L’22 enrolled in both a Juvenile Justice seminar and in ICAC, which provided him the unique experience of hearing some Youth Advocates speak twice, several months apart.

“Over the course of a year, you could tell that the Youth Advocates were so much more confident telling their story and able to reflect on their experience, and it was really powerful,” Frank said. “It spoke to the clients as individuals and to the philosophy of the Clinic, which is: you want the client to highlight their own story, and you want to put them forward to show their strengths.”

Panel presentations often touch on the inherent trauma that comes with entering the system and the ways in which, as clients, the Youth Advocates felt unheard in court. During the presentation, ICAC students listen as Hopkins directs questions at the panelists; at the conclusion, ICAC students can ask their own questions.

Emphasizing active and empathetic listening

Youth Advocates repeatedly underscore that the best thing an attorney can do to help a youth client feel comfortable and retain their agency is to listen closely and attentively when the client speaks — and respond accordingly by fighting for the needs that the youth communicate to them.

The lesson was not lost on Madison Kirton L’22, who was also a student in ICAC last year. Kirton noted that a major takeaway for her was realizing that listening is not something everyone automatically knows how to do well; it is a powerful skill that can and must be learned.

“Learning to listen to someone and not think through your own agenda while you’re listening, but just truly listen to what the person has to say, is a skill that a lot of people forget,” Kirton said.

For Frank, a major takeaway from the ICAC experience was a reminder of the value that comes with taking a step back so that the client can retain a leadership role throughout the advocacy process.

“I think as lawyers we tend — and law school taught us this — to ‘issue spot,’ and say, ‘This is what we should do here. Let me tell you what we’re going to do. I know your case,’” Frank said. “But it’s really important to understand what the clients’ goals are, to explain to them what you’re going to do, to elicit their feedback, and to see if they can help you shape your strategy. Going forward, what’s important isn’t showing how smart you are and you well you can ‘fix their problem,’ but instead actually understand if they do have a problem and what they want.”

One question Hopkins asked during this Spring’s presentation was whether the Youth Advocates felt that court could ever truly be “trauma-informed.” Hopkins posed the question to give the Youth Advocates a platform to talk about the emotions they felt when entering spaces that, historically, have not been built for them.

“When court initially was designed, it was extremely punitive for families of color and still is…. When we talk about why kids are still intimidated — and it’s often Black and brown youth who are being taken from their families — attorneys need to understand why their client doesn’t want to speak or why they’re angry or frustrated in court,” Hopkins said. “That’s something that I think is important for students to know. Technically, they still work for a system that the clients feel immensely oppressed by. I think people need to hold space for that as attorneys, and then figure out, ‘Okay, how do I support myself and my clients? How do I acknowledge this and still give good representation?’”

For Kirton, the Youth Advocates’ first-hand accounts inspired her to reflect on her role as a lawyer and commit to continually striving to ensure that the client’s voice remained central to her advocacy.

“What shocked me was the overall lack of transparency in the system,” Kirton said. “For lawyers, it might be easy to get bogged down by the checklist of, ‘Okay, this is what I have to do. I’m going to make this decision for you.’ Even though the foster care system goes up to 21, the fact that a lot of these kids were still treated as if they had no say in their life was very shocking and disheartening, and it honestly made me want to be a better advocate and encourage them to be a part of the process.”

Formalizing knowledge in cross-disciplinary academic scholarship

When the Columbia Journal of Race and Law announced a call for proposals for an upcoming issue marking the 20th anniversary of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, the groundbreaking book by Dorothy Roberts, George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights, Finck and Hopkins submitted an abstract for an article detailing both the partnership between ICAC and the Juvenile Law center and the insights into justice — and lack thereof — in the child welfare system that the partnership has yielded. In the article, which is forthcoming in the Spring issue, Finck and Hopkins center youth voices and argue for more inclusive advocacy within the child welfare system. They also build upon Roberts’ scholarship, which argues for the system’s abolishment.

For Hopkins, the struggle toward abolition involves careful thought not only about reducing immediate harm for a client but also about how the systems perpetuate large-scale harm that disproportionately affects children along lines of race and class.

“Harm-reduction work to support young people where they are and get all the things that they deserve and need is really important, but then in the same breath, we have conversations with our young people where they’re like, ‘I just don’t think that I needed to be placed in the first place,’” Hopkins said. “There are so many racial components and economic factors that impact families that bring them into the system and take their kids away, and we don’t often see attorneys who are representing the child fighting for the kid to go back home or to be in kinship. It’s a huge issue, especially for older youth.”

Learn more about experiential learning opportunities through Gittis Legal Clinics.