For the past 15 years, UM Law’s Children and Youth Law Clinic has been helping some of Florida’s most vulnerable kids be seen and heard.
When not taking classes toward his associate’s degree, Carlints St. Louis spends three afternoons a week with a college counselor, filling out applications to four-year institutions and shaping his future.
UM student Caitlin Currie, left, is learning about the law through the eyes of her client, former foster child Carlints St. Louis.
The once-blank spaces on the forms offer a peek into his journey.
Mother’s maiden name: Unknown.
His personal essay explores his desire to be a social worker, so he can help kids who have gone through the same travails he has.
St. Louis says he was around 5 years old when he was sent from Haiti to the U.S. to live with his aunt for the possibility of a better life. Within a few years, though, his aunt’s guardianship rights were terminated and St. Louis was turned over to Florida’s foster care system, where he spent more than a decade.
While still a teen, St. Louis found his way to the University of Miami School of Law’s Children and Youth Law Clinic, run by some of the state’s most experienced legal advocates for children who have reached the maximum age for foster care.
During the four years St. Louis has been a clinic client, students and supervising attorneys have helped him avoid deportation, get money from the state to furnish his apartment, and even find a college counselor to provide advice pro bono—“basically, just about everything,” says St. Louis, now 20.
The clinic serves as the voice for 60 to 70 young people every year—in one of the handful of states that don’t routinely assign lawyers to represent foster children. All the while, the clinic trains young lawyers, exposing them to real clients and court cases and pushing for systemic change.
These student interns have fought for state benefits, arranged access to education, and—in a high-profile case last year—even argued before the Florida Supreme Court.
More and more, says Bernard Perlmutter, J.D. ’83, an associate clinical professor at the School of Law who has been director of the clinic since its inception in 1995, his students are “on the front line—they take the lead not just on the bread and butter cases, but the higher-impact work.”
|Directors Bernard Perlmutter and Kele Williams supervise the student attorneys, who handle up to 70 cases each year.
Helping the Voiceless
Last year 1,475 teens aged out of Florida’s foster care system, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families. For them, the Road to Independence Act is supposed to offer what its name implies: a pathway to a new life. The State of Florida program gives young adults from ages 18 to 23 up to $13,620 a year to live on, as long as they stay in school full-time and meet other requirements.
Often, though, life gets in the way, and complications can cause benefits to be reduced or cut altogether, sometimes with little notice. Problems arise so often with Road to Independence funding that cases like Felix Roman’s have become a clinic staple through the years. Roman was receiving benefits while he pursued his GED at an adult vocational school in South Miami-Dade County. He longed to become a medical assistant, remembers his former studentattorney, Diana McLaughlin, J.D. ’09.
Yet his kidney ailment—Roman, who suffered kidney failure at 8 and a failed transplant at 14, was on dialysis three times a week—kept him from making all his classes.
That meant losing his $892-a-month stipend.
The clinic took up his case, arguing that the state should have accommodated him under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
McLaughlin was a quick study. A practicing physician before enrolling at UM, she had established a pediatric practice serving 24,000 patients annually, including some foster children. It was a desire to help clients like Roman, she explains, that led her to law school.
She breezed through Roman’s medical files, easily able to understand the terms describing his illness and how it prevented him from attending school.
The day before oral argument at the Florida Third District Court of Appeal, McLaughlin visited Roman at the hospital while he was receiving treatment. She went over the case and the arguments to be made.
“Even though he was hooked up to dialysis, he still had his bright smile and was very optimistic,” recalls McLaughlin. “I think it revved me up even more to do something for him.”
She did achieve something—but not through the courts, which rejected the appeal. Instead, the case garnered so much public attention that the state agreed to reinstate Roman’s benefits and provide him with home tutoring.
Making the Law
Fifteen years ago, the Children and Youth Law Clinic was born when Carolyn Salisbury, A.B. ’92, J.D. ’95, received a national fellowship from Echoing Green to provide legal advocacy for foster children. Her alma mater gave the project a home, ushering in the School of Law’s first clinic. Thendean Samuel C. Thompson Jr. recruited Perlmutter, a seasoned attorney with Legal Services of Greater Miami, to help run it. Ever since, the clinic has lived by its motto: “We don’t just teach the law, we make the law.”
Third-year law student Mia Goldhagen fought the use of shackles in juvenile court.
It is often at the forefront of statewide issues affecting Florida youth. Most famously, in a case decided by the Florida Supreme Court in 2003, Perlmutter and the clinic earned foster kids the right to both a lawyer and a hearing before they could be involuntarily committed to psychiatric facilities. Before that, they were often represented only by a volunteer guardian ad litem.
For another widely publicized case, third-year law student Mia Goldhagen appeared before the State Supreme Court in 2009 to oppose the routine and indiscriminate use of shackles on offenders in juvenile court.
The practice, she argued, not only violates their constitutional rights, but goes against the very nature of juvenile court, which aims to rehabilitate minors in trouble with the law.
Previously, Perlmutter had worked with Bruce Winick, former Silvers- Rubenstein Distinguished Professor of Law, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and director of the new Therapeutic Jurisprudence Center, on an affidavit about shackling that led in part to Miami-Dade County banning the blanket practice in 2006. Public defenders around the nation embraced the document and used it to argue against shackling in their own regions. But when Florida’s Supreme Court took up the issue, Perlmutter decided to let one of his clinic students make the case.
“Mia is a student willing to take risks, to push herself to the limits, and be brave,” Perlmutter says.
For Goldhagen, two years of law school and long weeks of preparation boiled down to six minutes before seven justices. They pelted her with so many questions that she barely got through the introduction of her prepared argument. But watching her responses, one gets the impression she’s already a seasoned pro.
“I felt so prepared,” says Goldhagen. “The time was gone before I knew it.”
Ultimately, the judges banned the use of shackles in juvenile court unless violence is feared probable.
Participating in the clinic, Goldhagen says, was the best part of law school.
“Law school is so theoretical, it gets to be draining,” she adds. “It’s refreshing to put what you learn to good practice, and to see what you learn translate into helping an individual.”
Caitlin Currie is a type-A student. Entrepreneurial and idealistic, she aspires to work in a law firm. But for now, the public interest sector is providing fertile training ground.
One day Currie is researching legal questions for her Children and Youth Law Clinic client, Carlints St. Louis. The next she’s part social worker, sitting beside St. Louis in his college counselor’s office and making sure he keeps working on applications instead of veering off into Facebook.
Such varied services on behalf of their young clients are typical, explains Kele Williams, associate clinical law professor and clinic co-director. The clinic’s emphasis on treating the client as a whole person, not just the legal issue, is important, she adds, “because their lives aren’t compartmentalized into different subject matters.” Clients (usually referred to the clinic by judges) may walk in seeking a domestic violence injunction, for example, but may not get the help they truly need if the attorney doesn’t see how that decision may affect their housing or custody situation.
This holistic approach also trains law students to be more effective advocates and creative problem-solvers.
“We think of public service law as a service profession,” Williams notes. “The best way for students to understand systemic inequality is to really understand our clients’ lives. And you can’t understand our clients’ lives if all you think about is a discrete legal problem.”
For Currie, working with St. Louis has cemented her sense of purpose as a lawyer. In the course of representing him, she literally helped make sure he had a bed to sleep in at night.
Last fall, St. Louis was renting a room in a Northwest Miami-Dade home when it went into foreclosure. So he put his furniture—which state funding helped him buy—in a storage unit along with his landlord’s things. He faithfully sent the landlord checks to ensure safekeeping. But the landlord didn’t keep up with the payments, and the storage company auctioned off their goods. When St. Louis found out, he asked his state caseworker for money to replace the furniture. But state rules say furniture funds can be allotted only once per person—his claim was denied.
Currie prepared the case and argued it in an administrative hearing. She also called St. Louis to testify on his own behalf before the hearing officer.
“I told [the hearing officer], basically, I need the furniture,” St. Louis recounts. “I’m a human being, and most human beings have furniture, somewhere to eat, a couch they can sit on.”
The hearing officer agreed. St. Louis got his furniture. Currie was buoyed by the win.
“The clinic has imposed a duty on me,” she says. “Once you have a UM law degree, you need to take it seriously and be responsible for that degree in such a way that you are consciously thinking of others who can be helped.”
No doubt a message St. Louis will be carrying with him to college this fall.
Marika Lynch is a freelance writer based in Miami, Florida.