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ULC Develops Inter-Disciplinary Advocacy Model for Youth in Custody

This article appears in the Fall 2011 CLINIC NEWS.

In October 2010, when Urban Legal Clinic (ULC) law student Jessica Rivera ’11 and social work student Frank Barszcz ’12 first met their client, F, he was 16 years old and incarcerated in a secure facility for juvenile offenders. He was there as the result of a long history of involvement in the State’s juvenile justice system and after having been discharged from two residential drug treatment programs. 

F was a handsome young man with a broad smile that he used, according to Barszcz, “like a salesman’s tool of persuasion. The smile was more for Jessica than it was for me but I could tell there was something about this kid that you just could not help but like.”

The inter-disciplinary student team was assigned to represent F through the New Jersey Juvenile Indigent Defense Action Network (JIDAN), a joint initiative of the ULC, the Children’s Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School–Camden, and the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender. JIDAN is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and is part of Models for Change, the foundation’s multi-year national juvenile justice reform. New Jersey was one of four states selected by the foundation to participate in the network in 2009 after a competitive national application process.

JIDAN aims to improve access to and the quality of legal representation for youth involved in the juvenile justice system. In New Jersey, once a young person is committed to the long-term custody of the juvenile justice system, he or she no longer has a right to legal representation to monitor conditions of confinement, ensure that the client is receiving appropriate educational or rehabilitative services, or help the client prepare for release. JIDAN closes this gap by having the two law school clinics provide post-sentencing representation to juvenile Public Defender clients.

With the assistance of Clinical Professor Jennifer Valverde, who also holds a Master Degree in social work, the ULC has developed an inter-disciplinary approach to this crucial advocacy. Law and social work students work under the guidance of Clinical Professor Laura Cohen to ensure the safety and well-being of their clients. Like F, children in custody often present with a constellation of previously unmet needs, including mental health, medical, educational, and other therapeutic concerns. Many have suffered previous abuse and severe trauma and have been involved in the foster care, mental health, and special education systems. 

Thus, while Jessica worked to ensure that F received the legal protection he is constitutionally entitled to, Frank helped F and his family assess their situation from a social work perspective so that they felt more engaged and better able to participate in F’s legal representation. Despite these somewhat different roles, social work students in the law school’s clinical program are part of the defense team and bound by the same ethical rules of confidentiality.

Frank and Jessica met with F several times during his incarceration and worked with him and his family to develop his aftercare plan. Through their efforts, counseling services were put into place immediately and F quickly was placed in an appropriate school. Without the ULC’s involvement, it is unlikely that F would have received this vital assistance.