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New program aims to enhance child advocacy through rural Nebraska
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New program aims to enhance child advocacy through rural Nebraska

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Children's Justice Clinic

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Children's Justice Clinic has served Lancaster County's vulnerable child population in the justice system since 2017.

Now, thanks to new funding, the program's efforts will expand to work on increasing quality child advocacy in rural communities across Nebraska.

The new endeavor, dubbed the Children's Justice Attorney Education Program, will focus on training attorneys in the specifics of child and family advocacy.

In contrast, the Children's Justice Clinic focuses on third-year law students at UNL, where the students get real-world experience representing children in the justice system. 

Michelle Paxton, director of both programs, said the clinic program had represented more than 200 children in court through this summer.

Both programs are hosted through the College of Law and the Center on Children, Families and Law, but the new attorney training program has also partnered with Legal Aid of Nebraska to help with its implementation.

Paxton said a survey by Nebraska Attorney Services Division in 2020 showed that 40% of responding judges felt like they had a hard time finding qualified attorneys to serve in juvenile court cases, especially in rural communities.

The new program aims to recruit 12 attorneys each year to participate in the eight-month program, during which they'll learn the ins and outs of child advocacy and engage in hands-on learning experiences, such as court, home visit and client interview simulations.

"When we think about professional education, often it's only a few hours and you can easily forget that information you've learned," Paxton said. "Our goal is to provide comprehensive education, along with that practical application to improve the ability of the attorneys to integrate that knowledge."

Children's Justice Clinic

Michelle Paxton, director of the Children's Justice Clinic, talks with two student attorneys in the Judge Donald R. and Janice C. Ross Courtroom in the Nebraska College of Law. Clinic student attorneys practice with Paxton before going to court.

Parts of the program will be conducted remotely for participating attorneys who may live far from Lincoln.

Paxton said the program will focus not only on educating attorneys from rural areas, but also on encouraging them to practice in rural communities, which she said face an attorney shortage in general.

"Many times, the continuing education opportunities are in our urban communities," Paxton said. "This program will be able meet those attorneys where they're at."

The funding came, in part, from the Springboard Prize for Child Welfare from the Aviv Foundation. The prize invests in new and innovative programs focused on preventing child abuse and neglect, and uplifting families and children in the justice system.

Four prizes of $200,000 were awarded to the winning programs, including the Children's Justice Attorney Education Program. 

"Just like the title of the prize, the Springboard, it really was the springboard for us to get this program going," Paxton said. "We had this idea, that this is exactly what Nebraska rural communities needed, and our children and families needed, but we didn't have funding, so we are so pleased and honored to have received this prize."

Paxton said that rural communities often lack the resources and expert advice needed to effectively represent children in a legal issue, and the new program aims to address that.

"The attorneys that have participated in this should be able to provide and demonstrate to the court they have the knowledge and skills necessary to be high-quality advocates for the children and families they represent," she said.

The application to participate in the program will go live in February, with the first eight-month training session scheduled to start next May. 

While law school teaches attorneys many of the facets of advocacy, Paxton said that some of the specifics of child and family care and representation don't always get taught, and that is the gap the program aims to fill.

"Understanding how poverty impacts family, substance use, domestic violence and trauma, all of these are areas that we need the attorneys who work with our children and families, that are these vulnerable populations, to have an enhanced knowledge about," Paxton said.

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