February 09, 2011

Students will get practical juvenile law experience

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Students in the Southern Illinois University School of Law will have the opportunity to learn more about juvenile law through a grant from the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts.

The law school’s legal clinic will use the grant to allow a supervising attorney to serve as a court-appointed Guardian ad Litem in child-related abuse, neglect and dependency cases in Jackson County. Students who are under the supervising attorney’s direction will assist in the case investigation, prepare a written report and present to the court an opinion of what is in a child’s best interest.

John F. Erbes, interim clinic director and visiting assistant professor of law, said he is excited by the opportunity to open up another area of the law in which students will gain practical experience.

“I’ve always thought the Guardian ad Litem model would be a great clinic program because the students will be exposed to a specific area of the law,” Erbes said. “They will interact with the court system, attorneys, medical professionals and child-welfare professionals.”

Students will receive “tremendous experience fairly quickly,” Erbes said, noting that many law school graduates find themselves involved with juvenile law issues and serving as Guardian ad Litem in a variety of legal areas.

The legal clinic is now looking to hire a supervising attorney to serve as an assistant clinical professor. The nine-month contract runs to Sept. 30, but Erbes hopes funding will be available for an additional two years. The $116,000 grant is part of the AOIC’s Court Improvement Program through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The funds will cover salary and student wage expenses, along with travel costs.

“This grant fits perfectly into the law school’s mission and history as it allows us to offer students an additional opportunity for hands-on skills training, while also providing a service to the local courts and community,” said Cynthia L. Fountaine, dean of the SIU School of Law.

“It also enables the law school to fulfill our public service mission by helping kids in our own community,” she said. “This type of practical skills training is a hallmark of what the SIU School of Law has always done well, and what more and more law schools now recognize as critical to legal education.”

The program could also mean some cost savings for Jackson County, because the judicial system regularly must appoint an outside attorney to serve as Guardian ad Litem, Erbes said. Forty-five cases requiring a Guardian ad Litem opened between January and October 2010, and some cases can proceed for several years before there is a final resolution, he said.

The University of Illinois College of Law has a similar Administrative Office of Illinois Courts-funded program that represents parents in abuse and neglect cases in Champaign County, Erbes said.

The Court Improvement Program provides federal funding to the highest state courts “to enhance efforts in juvenile abuse and neglect court systems in our state,” said Cynthia Y. Cobbs, director of the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts. In 2009, AIOC launched a three-year “Legal Representation Initiative” that focuses on attorney training, resource development, and funding local programs and projects “that enhance the effectiveness of legal representation in child protection cases and result in improved outcomes for children and families,” she said.

“Such initiatives support services for our state’s most vulnerable citizens -- those children who are victims of abuse and neglect,” Cobbs said. “Guardians ad Litem for children involved in the juvenile abuse and neglect system are integral to their safety and permanency.”

Second- and third-year law students will be eligible to participate, Erbes said.

The award “recognizes the need to cultivate new attorneys in the unique and specialized field of child protection,” said Dawn Marie Rubio, assistant director of the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts.

“Providing funding the SIU School of Law Legal Clinic for the training and development of law students will provide a solid foundation for law students to work in the child protection arena as students, and hopefully, in their career as legal professionals,” Rubio said.