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Children's Rights Law

PSJD Career Guide

This Guide is designed to give you a brief overview of the legal field in Children’s Rights Law. It provides practical information regarding the types of employers and practice settings in which you can pursue a career; the personality traits that employers seek; the practical skills that you can gain during law school; and resources to further research this rewarding field.

This content is courtesy of the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising at Harvard Law School. It was written by Dan Ahearn, Attorney Advisor and Ben Holzer, Summer Fellow 2000, and revised by Lena Andrews, Summer Fellow 2007.

What is Children’s Rights Law?

In essence, Children’s Rights Law is the point where the law intersects with a child’s life, which could be for a range of reasons including juvenile delinquency, protection from neglect or abuse, education, immigration and citizenship, or healthcare. While some organizations work in just one of these content areas, many organizations perform work in some or all of the content areas because each child’s situation generally requires a multi-faceted solution.

Juvenile Justice

Each state’s juvenile justice system addresses issues relating to children who are charged with criminal conduct such as assault & battery, possession or distribution of drugs, and other misdemeanors or felonies. Children may be facing detention, commitment to a youth agency, or incarceration. Representation is critical at each stage of the juvenile justice process because an attorney can ensure appropriate due process, disposition, and services for the child. For example, children in the juvenile justice system may need special treatment and educational programming. An attorney must explore these avenues effectively and thoroughly on a child’s behalf.

Care & Protection

When children are at risk or subject to abuse or neglect in their homes, they may need services such as protection, shelter, or treatment provided by a state’s protective services agency. In addition, parents may be unable to provide appropriate interventions to meet a child’s needs. In these situations, judges are generally required to appoint counsel to represent a child’s interest in a proceeding designed to decide whether to remove a child from their home. Attorneys exercise a vital role by counseling their client, the child, regarding options available to them. These options may include foster care, treatment programs, ongoing counseling, or group home placement. Without effective representation, children may be removed from their homes or continue to reside in an unsafe home; moved into inappropriate programs; forced to cycle from placement to placement; or denied needed services.

Education

Advocacy on behalf of children occurs frequently in the context of education. With the increasing emphasis placed on education through testing of students for promotion and graduation as well as issues relating to violence in schools, education has increasingly assumed the spotlight in today’s society. Hence, legal issues arise more frequently. For example, children’s rights are involved in issues of bilingual education, special education, education reform, or school discipline.

In special education, implementation of federal and state special education statutes arise in the context of individual cases. Consequently, attorneys work with individual clients and use negotiation and litigation skills in attempting to secure appropriate educational services. These highly emotional cases require an understanding of the myriad legal requirements as well as educational methodologies and an ability to mediate successfully. In addition, class action and legislative activity is common in the special education arena.

Attorneys may also work in firms that advise and provide representation to school districts on special education issues. Education reform requires systemic initiatives and policy work. It involves policy development and implementation at the local, state, and federal level. Statewide testing, curriculum revision, and teacher certification requirements are examples of education reform work. Consequently, attorneys generally work in government agencies or in the legislature.

Finally, student discipline requires representation in school suspension and expulsion cases. With the increasing focus on school violence, many students face suspension and expulsion each year. Suspension and expulsion are tied directly to due process, and attorneys play a vital role in insuring that appropriate notices are issued and hearing procedures are followed, and decisions are rendered based on accurate information. Work in this area will, therefore, involve individual case advice and representation as well as legislative work to address system-wide issues.

Where can I practice Children’s Rights Law?

When representing children, you may practice in a variety of settings across the country. This section describes and provides general background information on four distinct practice settings.

Legal Aid / Legal Services

Legal services agencies often devote a portion of their overall work to children’s legal issues. These agencies rely on government funding to operate, and as a result, may have limited financial resources. Generally, these agencies focus on individual case representation in health, education, social security, and juvenile court matters. A legal services office may have a full or part-time attorney who represents children.

The advantages of a legal services office are that you will be given immediate client contact and a great deal of responsibility; will have some level of supervision; will likely be afforded flexible working conditions; and will be in a supportive environment of colleagues with similar interests. The disadvantages are that you will not earn a lot of money; your position may be year-to-year depending on funding; your office space may be less than ideal; and the demand for services may overwhelm your capacity.

Non-Profit Organizations

These organizations rely on a combination of government funding, fee for service, and private grants to deliver legal services. Some of these groups provide individual case representation. Other non-profit organizations may use impact litigation and legislative initiatives to effect changes on behalf of children. As a general rule, attorneys will work in teams to screen and select new cases, to brainstorm strategies for cases and advocacy in general, and to litigate cases. Non-profit organizations also may offer multi-purpose services on children’s issues such as trainings, drop-in legal clinics and lobbying on specific issues pertinent to children. Because attorneys experience direct client contact, they are often in an excellent position to simultaneously identify broader issues that may require systemic solutions via class action litigation or legislation. The advantages of a non-profit organization are that you will have the opportunity to provide individual case representation, the flexibility to identify and screen impact cases, and the ability to devote resources to legislative initiatives. The disadvantages are that you will earn a lower salary than traditional private firms, have the corresponding need to seek and report on grants, and negotiate fee for services agreements with clients.

Government Agencies

The government can also provide opportunities to work on behalf of children. Although it does not represent children directly, a state government agency’s attorneys may appear in court on behalf of the agency in abuse, neglect, commitment or treatment option cases. Government agencies typically have large legal staffs and a decentralized system of field offices. Attorneys work on a number of individual cases and often engage in litigation on a daily basis. In addition, government attorneys also draft statutes, regulations, and policies which have a direct impact on children. Typical state government agencies dealing with children’s rights are Departments of Social Services, Mental Health, Education, Developmental Disabilities, and Youth Services.

In the federal government, the Department of Education, which includes the Office for Civil Rights, and the Department of Health & Human Services are generally involved in working on policy issues and may also investigate individual complaints or cases. Unlike state agency attorneys, federal agency attorneys do not typically litigate cases.

Law Firms

Some private firms and solo practitioners specialize in issues relating to children. For example, private attorneys seek services for a child through a direct retainer arrangement with parents. In this situation, representation centers on matters related to education, medical treatment, guardianship, criminal charges, or other government entitlements. Since the retainer is executed by the child’s parents, the attorney takes direction from the parents, though the representation impacts the child directly. Sometimes, a court appoints a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) to represent the best interest of a child in a divorce, abuse or neglect, or other cases. Private firms also may provide legal advice and representation to entities that work with children. As an illustration, school districts may require legal advice on the many legal mandates associated with the education of children, including children with disabilities, or hospitals may require guidance on legal issues relating to treatment of children. The advantages of private firm work are direct client contact and representation, a potentially superior salary, an array of office support services, and good supervision. Because private firms may not specialize solely in public interest work, a disadvantage can be that an attorney may be required to perform legal work unrelated to children’s law in order to help the firm fund its public interest work. In addition, case selection may be based on ability to pay instead of the merits of particular case or issue, and an attorney will generally need to track billable hours. For attorneys who work in a solo practice, the salary may be lower but the autonomy is greater.

Which personality traits make you well-suited for this?

Children’s rights law involves dealing with potentially difficult ethical issues of representation. It means representing a child who will pose different challenges, and offer a different type of satisfaction, than representation of an adult client. Attorneys who represent a child must understand family dynamics and child development. They must also be sensitive to the implication of fundamental principles and values which may conflict such as a child’s right to protection vs. a parent’s right to raise his or her child. Children’s rights law is all of the above and more.

What can I be doing in law school to help my career in Children’s Rights Law?

Examine your background and make a list of your experiences and contacts with children. Have you taken courses that relate, even tangentially, to children’s issues? Have you attended conferences or presentations that you can discuss as triggering an interest in children’s law? Are there articles that you have written, or read, that focus on children and tie into your interest? Have you handled cases at firms or agencies that caught your attention and interest and that involved children’s issues? All of these examples can be used to construct a background that shows an interest in helping children using the law. Your goal should be to construct a road map that leads logically to that exact point in time when you are applying to an organization so that the prospective employer can say, “I know why this student wants to work for us.”

While in law school be sure to take advantage of clinical/experiential learning opportunities related to Children’s Rights work. Find good mentors – one of the most important thing you can do to become a successful advocate is to form relationships with the people who are doing the work you want to do and doing it better than anybody else.

Resources

The following links will be useful as you continue to explore this field:

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