In Chicago, judges appoint child representatives, attorneys that represent the child’s best interests, in contested custody and divorce cases, typically when one or both parties are pro se.
With the support of a postgraduate fellowship from Penn Law, Rob Zielinski L’15 is working as a staff attorney for the child representative program at Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, where he maintains his own family law caseload, does all the intake for the program, supervises and supports volunteer attorneys, and recruits and runs training for potential volunteers.
“Child representatives are critical to ensuring the welfare of children. They serve an especially critical role in cases where parents cannot afford attorneys and are representing themselves, since unrepresented parents may be at a tremendous disadvantage when they seek custody of their children,” said Arlene Rivera Finkelstein, Associate Dean and Executive Director of the Toll Public Interest Center. “Rob’s work makes sure that children have the legal support they need at what can be a very difficult time in their young lives.”
Child representatives are active participants in the litigation of contested cases; they meet with the child and the parties, file pleadings on the child’s behalf, and argue in court for the child’s best interests. Of the nearly 12,000 volunteers that work with CVLS in and around Chicago, 66 work as child reps.
Since Zielinski began his fellowship, CVLS has been appointed on 45 different custody and divorce cases, and all of the volunteers have been placed with his supervision, or that of his supervisor, Phil Mohr, CVLS’s deputy director.
Zielinski wasn’t always interested in family law, but in his second year at Penn Law, he took a family law course with Professor Serena Mayeri and began working in the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic, under the supervision of Professor Kara Finck.
Those experiences, particularly his work in the clinic, put him on the path to advocating for children and practicing family law.
“I know the children that I represent are in particularly crucial developmental stages,” said Zielinski, “and the things that happen to them while they’re kids will impact them, whether positively or negatively, for the rest of their lives.”
As a Chicago native, Zielinski knew he wanted to return to the city after graduating from Penn Law. He is currently a child rep on five of his own cases, as well as two guardian ad litem cases, four divorces, and three adoptions. He also talks with the parties involved with a case before assigning it to an appropriate volunteer.
The cases are often challenging, Zielinski explained, with some involving traumatic events such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, and children witnessing criminal activity. Because of these difficult circumstances, it can be difficult to get children to open up.
In addition to those barriers, he noted, “every single one of my cases involves low-income litigants.” Often parents are struggling to feed themselves, let alone their children.
Despite the challenges of the work, Zielinski is currently in the process of applying for additional funding so that he can continue his work in family law once his fellowship from Penn Law ends.
“I think this fellowship is a great step in the right direction for my career,” he said. “I’m eternally grateful to Penn Law for allowing me the opportunity to do the thing I’ve really wanted to do, which is help those who can’t help themselves.”