For nearly a decade, the Southeast Louisiana Services (SLLS) Child in Need of Care (CINC) unit has been providing critical legal representation to vulnerable children in foster care, many of them victims of abuse, neglect and other forms of trauma.
On Thursday, the SLLS team—which is directed and comprised mostly of alumni of Tulane Law’s Lutz Public Interest Fellowship Program – will receive the Louisiana State Bar Association Pro Bono Publico Children’s Law Award.
The honor will be conferred at a ceremony at the Louisiana Supreme Court and webcast to a virtual audience on Thursday, May 20 at 2 p.m.
“The Lutz Fellowship is vital to SLLS’ ability to help close the justice gap for children in crisis who need an attorney to represent them in court and within the child welfare system. We are proud and thankful to be a host site for Lutz Fellows, to develop them as leaders in the law, and to know we can rely on Tulane and the Lutz Family to ensure the children we represent get the best legal assistance possible,” said Laura Tuggle (L’87) Executive Director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services.
Tulane’s Lutz Family Public Interest Fellowship for Children’s Welfare – which awards annual fellowships to several Tulane Law students interested in working in the public interest with children and families – has supplied a steady pipeline of Tulane Law graduates to the CINC unit. Thanks to the generosity of Laurent (L’86) and Marcia Lutz, the fellowships since 2014 have helped provide needed services in the community and enabled law graduates to launch careers in public service.
Josephine Vanderhorst (L’15), one of the first Lutz Child Welfare Fellows, now is the unit’s Managing Attorney. Another three of the current seven attorneys in the unit – Kirby Kenny (L’18), Natalie Paul (L’19), and Alexandra Kamp (L’17) also were Lutz Fellows. And alumna Rella Zaplatel (L'13) joined the unit several years ago.
Although Lutz Fellows serve a one-year term, each of the program’s past 11 Fellows have thereafter been hired into permanent positions by SLLS or the other legal services providers for whom they worked.
“The Lutz Family Fellowship has built a remarkable legacy protecting the interests of vulnerable children and families and launching the careers of a growing cohort of passionate public-interest lawyers,” said law Dean David Meyer.
“The ripple-effect impact of the Fellowship is almost incalculable and we could not be more proud of the fellows or more grateful to Marcia and Laurent for their generosity and ongoing support.”
Tulane’s Lutz Fellows also have worked in other nonprofits, including recent graduates Radha Yerramilli (L’19) placed at the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights and Laurel Sheridan (L’20) who is with Crescent Care.
The SLLS unit’s work has provided effective and high-quality legal representation to almost 9,000 minors, according to the nomination letter. Of those cases, almost 77 percent were represented by SLLS attorneys with the balance assisted by pro bono partners, Tuggle said.
“Our average CINC client is a first-grader aged 6 1/2 whose parent/guardian(s)' abuse or neglect of them resulted in significant trauma and the child's removal from the home for their protection,” the nomination said. “Our mission is to help improve the lives of children in need, to reunite them with their families where possible, or to as quickly as possible move for termination of parental rights so children can be freed for adoption in the most serious cases.”
Serving some 14 parishes in the southern Louisiana region, the unit has started the state's first Family Preservation Courts in Lafourche Parish and is working on additional innovations to improve the lives of children, Tuggle said.
During the pandemic, SLLS worked to ensure children were provided with accessible representation in virtual hearings, updated the court on best practices and worked with a statewide committee to help update the Louisiana Supreme Court model judgments related to reasonable efforts the Department of Children and Family Services must make before a child is kept in foster care.