By Deborah Shanahan
Law School Students Advocate for Abused and Neglected Children
Hannah Cook was attending an admitted-student day for the University of Nebraska College of Law when she heard Michelle Paxton speak about the college’s Children’s Justice Clinic.
The clinic allows third-year law students to be advocates in court for vulnerable children dealing with troubling family dynamics, such as child abuse or neglect, domestic violence or parental drug use.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s exactly what I want to do with my career,’” Cook said. “It was a deciding factor.”
Now Cook, a 2022 law college graduate from Verdigre, Nebraska, is using skills learned from her clinic experience in her work as a child advocacy attorney in Philadelphia.
“I was able to take this job and hit the ground running,” Cook said.
That’s the goal, said Paxton, director of the Children’s Justice Clinic. She said students are assigned cases, partnered with experts and get hands-on experience meeting with families and appearing in court for an academic year, graduating “practice-ready.”’
The clinic was created in 2017 in partnership with the University of Nebraska Center on Children, Families, and the Law to train law students to serve in the complex role of guardian ad litem, which is a legal advocate for children in family court cases. There’s a shortage of guardians ad litem, so the clinic is helping to address an urgent workforce need in the state.
Paxton each year supervises eight students who are chosen after they take her juvenile law class. The students commit a full academic year to the clinic to improve stability for the child clients.
For each case, students do an investigation, interviewing all parties involved, figure out what a child needs and present the findings in court. Paxton said the student attorneys work with numerous professionals in different roles, building skills to work with others and a variety of personalities.
Student attorneys, she said, “learn to meet people where they’re at in times of crisis and what people in poverty face — great skills for lawyers.”
Paxton oversees all the cases, and she and others such as social workers, psychologists and mental health clinicians provide support in whatever area a student needs, whether it’s law, public speaking, writing or meeting with families.
In addition, students, through weekly sessions, receive more than 70 hours of expert training in such topics as domestic violence, substance use, child development, poverty and trauma.
“We make sure we provide the highest quality of representation,” Paxton said.
In recognition for her leadership of the clinic, Paxton in 2021 received a new grant to launch a separate program for licensed attorneys in rural Nebraska to learn to serve as child advocates.
In Nebraska, the guardian ad litem has a dual role: advocating for what is in the best interest of the child while also representing the wishes of a child old enough to express them.
Tori Hervey, a 2022 graduate of the law college, said one of her cases through the clinic underscored the need for children to have a guardian ad litem. The case, she said, started as general neglect involving two children. But further exploration uncovered more issues that indicated the home wasn’t safe for the children, leading Hervey to go against the recommendations of the state and parents that the children remain in the home.
Ultimately, the judge agreed with Hervey’s findings and removed the children.
Hervey said she learned how to get the full picture of what the children experienced by talking to them, school counselors, doctors and other family members.
The clinic “would be a much different program without Michelle Paxton and her passion for juvenile law,” said Hervey, who now works for a North Platte firm that also serves as the county public defender.
Emily Medcalf agrees, saying Paxton is still someone she calls if she has a question. She graduated with her law degree in 2020 and now is a deputy county attorney in Douglas County, Nebraska.
Medcalf said her caseload in Douglas County is all domestic violence and crimes against children, but she thinks the clinic provided perspective that made her see cases from all sides and left her with a higher level of empathy.
The most “eye-opening” clinic case for Medcalf involved the end stages of a long-running case involving child sexual assault.
“You’re not only seeing how sex assault impacts a child but also the parent not involved,” she said. “You have to figure out how to get everybody in a safe place.”
Working with children going through such difficult times can take an emotional toll on attorneys and students in the clinic.
Paxton said working in teams can help with that as well as what she calls “reflective practice,” where students meet and have conversations facilitated by a social worker about their cases.
Colby Simpson, who graduated from the law school in May, described the sessions: “No phone, no laptop, just being present to talk about what’s on your mind.”
The facilitator, he said, “asks probing questions, forcing you to think and challenging how you’re thinking.”
The “deep dive” every other week into how he was feeling and how it affected what was going on was “a good refresher,” Simpson said. It helped him to see other potential outcomes to a case and understand why others involved thought differently.
Simpson said he thought reflective practice was so helpful that he asked his new employers if they do something similar. He was assured they would, in a less-structured, off-the-clock way.
When he was interviewed for this story, Simpson was two weeks from starting as an attorney in Denver’s Department of Social Services. He said he’s grateful for what he learned through the clinic and its real-life outcomes for his young clients.
The Children’s Justice Clinic has filled a much-needed role over the last six years, and private support has ensured that it will continue to do so, Paxton said.
In June, the Children’s Justice Clinic received a significant private gift from the Acklie Charitable Foundation that will permanently endow the clinic.
“We are pleased that the clinic will be able to train advocates using a holistic approach for years to come, thanks to the generous endowment we received,” Paxton said.