Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Therapeutic Side of Law

One of my apprehensions in committing to law school was the adversarial process and the impact on families and children in the judicial process.  The Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) Student Fellows Program has been instrumental in reassuring me that my pursuit of a legal career was the right decision.  Throughout this semester, my colleagues and I have learned a different side of the law grounded in Therapeutic Jurisprudence (TJ) and the Ecology of Human Development.  TJ is a holistic approach that aims to address the legal and non-legal issues of clients while incorporating interdisciplinary methods to address the root issue(s) and providing the necessary resources to empower clients to regain ownership of their lives and problems.  The Ecology of Human Development looks at each litigant’s environment individually to customize a solution to fit their individual needs.  

These brand new concepts and programs were introduced to us through classroom discussions, guest speakers, and (my personal favorite) field trips to see these concepts in action!  From guest speakers and visits to the Unified Family Court to seminar topics dealing with Preventive Law, Court Reform in Family Law, Collaborative Law, the Juvenile Justice System, and Problem Solving Courts, the CFCC Student Fellows have been exposed to a hidden side of law that I suspect is concealed from even most practicing attorneys. 

This year also marks the fifteenth anniversary of the creation of Maryland’s Family Divisions.  While this major milestone deserves a celebration (stay tuned for a date), it is also a reason to pause, reflect, and assess the implementation of the mission and goals of the Family Division.  My CFCC project this semester was to assist in planning the fifteen year celebration, including analyzing survey results from Circuit Court Judges and Masters to learn about their attitudes and court practices with respect to addressing the needs of families and children in the family court.  The mission of the Family Division is to provide comprehensive services early on in the litigation process to improve the lives of families and children who appear before the court.  Preliminary survey results indicate that while judicial officers find it important to have and integrate interdisciplinary solutions, the implementation is lacking.  To see the concepts we’ve learned all semester being recognized and requested by the judiciary is encouraging.    

As we wrapped up this semester last Wednesday, I realized how influential this class has been to me.  This class has taught me to practice law more holistically, which not only will benefit clients but additionally will reassure me that I can make a substantial impact in the lives of my future clients.  I truly believe the experience and concepts of the CFCC Student Fellows Program should be integrated throughout the law school curriculum so that all future lawyers are trained to practice law more holistically.  Until then, I encourage my fellow students at UB Law to take advantage of this fantastic opportunity and enroll in the CFCC Student Fellows Program I to learn about the therapeutic side of law.    

Friday, November 15, 2013

Field Trip to the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center

On November 6, 2013, the Center for Families, Children and the Courts Student Fellows and professors visited the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center located at 300 North Gay Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. We were fortunate enough to receive a tour of the facility by Rudy Adams, the Center’s managing director. We first met with Mr. Adams in a conference room to learn a little about the Center itself and how the Center functions.

Mr. Adams explained that this Center is only 1 of 3 of its kind in the nation. People from all across the world have come to visit this Center to see how things are done. This Center is unique in part because it is a multi-agency facility with a combined inter-government workforce housing the following departments: Department of Human Resources (including Baltimore City’s Department of Social Services), Office of the Public Defender, Baltimore City State’s Attorneys’ Office, Community Family Resource Center, Baltimore City Circuit Court (Juvenile Division), Baltimore City Clerk of the Court Office (Division of Juvenile Clauses), Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office, and Baltimore City Police Department. In addition to the aforementioned departments, there is also a detention center within the facility that provides residential housing for children in custody awaiting adjudication and disposition of delinquency cases.

I was amazed by this Center. I did not know it even existed prior to participating in the CFCC Student Fellows Program this semester. This Center is a great model for how Juvenile Justice should be handled. It was a one stop shop which seemed to make sense for an efficient handling of a case from beginning to end. Housing the multiple departments involved in these sorts of cases, all in one facility, is brilliant. Instead of having to waste time traveling or hearing back from another agency, you are only footsteps away.

Additionally, the tone of this facility was family friendly and fostered a welcoming atmosphere. There was artwork made by children in the community displayed in the hallways. There seemed to be several people within the agencies we passed on our tour who were dedicated to the Center’s mission and wanted to provide people in need with the resources available to assist them. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to tour this Center and hope to see replicates appear in other jurisdictions in the near future!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

CFCC Reflections

I became a Student Fellow with the University of Baltimore School of Law Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children, and the Courts (“CFCC”) in the middle of August. All the Student Fellows have been participating steadily and importantly in class discussions and projects. A major focus has been to reform the family justice system. For example, different approaches such as the Ecology of Human Development and Therapeutic Jurisprudence are fused together to create a more sustainable family justice system. Working with CFCC, I learned that all families and children ought to have an effective and efficient court system.

I have taken what I have learned and continue to learn and use the skills within CFCC’s Truancy Court Program (TCP), in which I participate. I started my project with the TCP in the middle of September and have come a long way. I have had the privilege to work alongside the Honorable Yvette Bryant, Baltimore City Circuit Court Family Division, Judge-in-Charge. We pride ourselves in addressing the root causes of truant behavior and link families to needed social services or other community-based supports. Seeing the transformation of the students from week one to now week eight has been inspirational. For many of the students participating in the TCP, it is the first time someone has dedicated so much time and effort to help them succeed. Every week is a new challenge for the TCP team and for the students. We actually can see that the students are using the help and support with which they are provided. The students have been opening up more and are happy to start talking to the TCP team when they are doing well and are having a great week. Even when students have had a bad week or have missed unexcused days of school, they are starting to tell us right away and are offering solutions to their own problems so that they do not repeat the behavior. It is truly remarkable how the TCP is affecting the lives of many in a positive way. When the TCP team has to tell a student that we are disappointed in him/her, it leaves a long lasting impression. The student knows that the people across the table truly care and want to help.

There was one particular incident in which a student approached the TCP table with a parent. The parent clearly was not aware of the purpose of the TCP. As soon as the parent sat down, she had an attitude and would talk over the team members to make sure she was heard. The TCP team members began to explain one-by-one the goals we had for the student, why we were even involved in the school, and the resources we could offer. The main point we wanted to emphasize was that we were there to help. The parent began to settle down and actually listen to what the team members had to say. She grew very fond of the program and what it had to offer. The look on the parent’s face showed me that what we were doing was something special. It was as if she was asking, “Why are you taking time to help us?” She left the table with a completely different attitude and understanding. Since her first visit with us, she has attended the remainder of the TCP sessions.

Being a CFCC Student Fellow truthfully has been an amazing experience. I look forward to the discussions and the projects we explore. There have been many hands on experiences with CFCC field trips, which show the different areas of the family justice system. Some visits have included a tour of Baltimore City’s Family Division, observing Baltimore City Drug Treatment Court, and visiting Baltimore City’s Juvenile Justice Center. Each visit was very educational and an experience that I will not forget. I am proud to be a CFCC Student Fellow and look forward to continuing my Fellowship with University of Baltimore’s Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children, and the Courts.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The "A "Team: An Inside Look At The Baltimore City Drug Treatment Court

On October 23, 2013 the CFCC Student Fellows visited the Baltimore City Drug Treatment Court. As we entered the court room, the first thing I noticed was a chalkboard with “The A Team” written on it.  I soon found out what that meant. When a participant remained drug-free and complied with treatment, his or her name would be written on the chalkboard as a member of “The A Team,” at which point everyone in the courtroom would give a round of applause. I was quite surprised because I had never seen something like this before.

When the clerk called the case, the Drug Court participant came to the “defendant’s” table in front of the Judge’s bench. There was one other person sitting next to the participant, and two people sitting at the “plaintiff’s” table.

I noticed the informal nature of the interaction between the Drug Court team members. The Judge was extremely friendly, even cheerful, and her positive attitude resulted in a calm atmosphere that is not usually felt in a court room. One member of the Drug Court team gave an update on how the participant had done since his/her last court appearance.  Depending on how long the participant remained drug free and complied with drug treatment, he/she would progress through several levels of the Drug Court Program, and eventually graduate.  

As I looked around the courtroom, I saw that most of the participants were middle-aged  African American men. I took note of the disparity in ethnicity and gender, which could be linked to Baltimore’s demographics.  As I watched the court administrator write the names of participants on the chalkboard, I wondered what the court did about those who did not make it on “The A Team.” We found out that those individuals still received encouragement and support.  For example, there were a couple of participants towards the end of the docket who had a negative progress report. I thought the Judge’s demeanor would change from cheerfulness to anger, but, instead, I was pleasantly surprised to see her disappointment and then encouragement.

The judge reprimanded the participant who had been caught drinking, and then handed down a sanction that did not include jail time. Instead, she ordered this individual to sit in Drug Court for two days. I later asked the judge why she gave that sanction and she explained how boring it was for someone to observe the court for an entire day.  However, this sanction served a second purpose: watching Drug Court participants succeed was a demonstration of each individual’s power to change himself or herself.  Further, the reprimanded participant had to listen to the many excuses made by people who relapse into drug and/or alcohol abuse and saw for himself or herself how ridiculous they sounded. 

When a participant did not get a good progress report, there was no applause.  However, there did not seem to be a negative vibe in the courtroom, either.  Instead, the judge would focus on the participant’s goals, motivate and encourage them to do better, and remind them that they were there to get help and the court was there to help them.

At the end of our visit, I asked who was on the Drug Court Program team.  I learned that they were the Judge, the public defender, the state’s attorney, the agent, the case manager, the clerk, the program director, the bailiffs, and the medical expert. I was surprise to see how everyone worked as a team, when I first walked into the courtroom.  In fact, I could not identify each person by his or her questions or demeanor.  I left with a good understanding of problem- solving courts and their purpose of rehabilitation instead of punishment.