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Juvenile Law Clinic: Representing Those Unable to Defend Themselves

October 22, 2018 12:15 PM

Juvenile Clinic Director David Katner. (Photo credit: Tracie Morris Shaefer)

 

Cameron Holmes was in his third year of law school helping represent a 16-year-old who was charged with stealing and unauthorized use of a car. 

It’s as far from practicing Maritime Law as you can get, which is what Holmes planned to study at Tulane Law School. The skills practice and courtroom experience, however, was something every lawyer needs. On the advice of a friend, he joined the Juvenile Law Clinic—with no regrets.

 “It’s definitely one of the best things that I did” in law school, Holmes (L'17) said. The clinic experience taught him “a good cross-section of skills,” including how to put together an effective argument, when to interject and object in court proceedings, and how to rebound when the unexpected happens.

Holmes is now practicing in New York City, but he recalls all the issues he had to manage in his case: Pursuing a motion to suppress evidence, getting a separate legal issue dismissed, making multiple court appearances and arranging for the client to enroll in education and work programs that could direct him on to a more productive path. 

“Our main objective was to help him out in a legal capacity, but we sometimes acted as social workers,” Holmes said. “A key goal is to reduce the chance of young offenders committing more crimes. We do more than counsel our client legally, we counsel them on ways to be a better person,” he said.

It’s a textbook case of what clinical students learn about the juvenile justice system, said Professor David Katner (L'80) who started a small AV-rated litigation firm in New Orleans, Katner & Escher, before assuming directorship of the Juvenile Law Clinic in 1984.

 “What I’d hoped to provide law students when I began teaching was exposure to litigation skills,” said Katner, who was enrolled in the Tulane’s first criminal clinic in 1979-80, and who served as Tulane’s Trial Advocacy Program Director in 1981.   

Litigation skills remain vital in any area of law, he said, because they’re the foundation of all legal work performed in court, regardless of the subject matter.

“The manner in which we provide representation has evolved. Today, we’re much more attuned to the mental health issues and diagnostic evaluations of our young clients,” Katner said.

Increasingly, the clinics are becoming more interdisciplinary. They join efforts with other Tulane departments, like social work, medical school and bioengineering to produce professionals who are well-rounded, thoughtful and able to find creative solutions. Which is why experienced attorneys and educators like Katner, who continuously researches juvenile law issues, make a huge difference in the clinic experience.

He has published extensively in the field of juvenile justice for more than 30 years, focusing on topics of competency presumptions in juvenile cases, access to early, quality child care, legal ethics of decision-making with underage minor clients, and even tooth decay and its long term impact on children and the legal issue of child neglect.  His multidisciplinary works include those addressing pediatric dental neglect and mandatory reporting of dental injuries found in the Journal of the American Dental Association.

Katner said student attorneys increasingly need to understand factors that might underlie juvenile behaviors: Exposure to domestic violence, fetal alcohol syndrome, mental retardation and the sometimes volatile combination of immaturity coupled with hormonal surges.

Often, clients come from families in which young parents had children when they essentially were children themselves and haven’t yet developed good parenting skills.  “The issue for us is beginning to try to explore limitations that these kids have that might not be obvious to a casual observer,” Katner said.

Katner said “multidisciplinary” for lawyers once meant getting a complementary degree, such as in tax law. Now, it’s taken on a new dimension: The clinic is teaching students about juvenile brain development and other social science research to expand strategies for helping clients whose needs might prove more complex than offering traditional legal representation.

In addition to learning the extensive Louisiana Children’s Code, student-attorneys also hear from clinical psychologists and forensic experts and work closely with mental health experts and social workers to determine what interventions might be effective.

In one case, a client threatened suicide after being sent by a judge to a housing placement located five hours away from New Orleans. The remoteness of the client’s placement made communicating with him difficult, but the student-attorneys had to assess his mental state following his threat of suicide. They reported it to the court, invested a great deal of time with the client, and the client was subsequently returned to the custody of his family. It was a lesson in the necessity of holistic client representation.

The clinic helped Sarah Cullum (L'18) cultivate her twin passions for oral advocacy and children. Once reluctant to engage in public speaking, she is now pursuing an LLM in Trial Advocacy. Cullum’s career path was altered by her enrollment and success in the clinic.

“The most meaningful experience I had in the clinic was with my first client, he is a 12-year old . . . When we got him out of the youth detention center, his mother cried she was so happy. I felt like I was really performing a service for this little boy and his mother. You have to remember with juveniles, they’re children before anything else—and they make bad decisions sometimes, but they’re kids.”

 And they all need representation when they come to court.