Now in its twelfth year of operation, the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke Law School has provided an opportunity for more than 200 law students to learn practical lawyering skills while providing free legal advice and representation to low-income, at-risk children in a large region around Durham. Since the Clinic opened its doors, hundreds of families have called on the Clinic for help with their children’s needs. Nearly 150 families sought the clinic’s help during this year, a testament to the reputation for advocacy that it has developed over the twelve years. The law students’ work has facilitated the provision of thousands of hours of individualized education for special needs children, the awarding of thousands of dollars in government benefits for impoverished disabled children, and the reversal of many school suspensions, allowing students to be back in the classroom or in an alternative learning environment.
During the past year, the Children’s Law Clinic was engaged in larger policy issues as well in its core work of enforcing the rights of individual children. In the fall semester, the students became involved in statewide advocacy to oppose a proposal that would have resulted in larger class sizes for children with disabilities. By engaging in research & community organizing, the Clinic was part of a coalition that forced the withdrawal of the proposal by the state Department of Public Instruction. Here is how one student described his experience:
The class size project was my most challenging and best learning experience. The opportunity to attend the statewide meeting, question the state education officials, draft information requests, and advocate to persons opposing our position was invaluable. It was fulfilling that I was able to use what I had learned in my Administrative Law course to identify and challenge agency procedure with success. I was able to gain extensive knowledge regarding NC Public Records Law, the NC Administrative Procedures Act, and substantive issues regarding special education. I never thought that our efforts, letters, and discussions would result in the state agency backing down.
Engaged in individual advocacy, clinic students were able to practice litigation skills during the 2012-13 year, with excellent results for clients. In the practice area of disability benefits, three students represented clients before Social Security Administrative Law Judges, and another before the Social Security Appeals Council. Our clients were awarded a total of more than $50,000 in retroactive benefits, along with ongoing monthly benefits. The favorable decision received from the SSA Appeals Council was a special accomplishment: this Council, that hears appeals from all over the country, issues fully favorable decisions in only about two percent of the cases it hears.
In the area of school discipline, a number of students represented clients in school suspension hearings. In the fall, as a result of the Clinic’s representation, a middle school girl facing more than four months of suspension from school was completely exonerated. Six other public school students had their suspensions shortened as a result of the clinic’s representation in discipline hearings, and were consequently in school rather than out of school for an aggregate of 560 days. The Clinic’s law students assigned to these cases engaged in client interviewing & counseling, investigation, development of case theory, witness preparation, direct and cross examination, and oral argument. Several students settled their cases, and thus were able to negotiate the terms of the settlements with opposing counsel. Other students were able to argue their cases on appeal before the local school board.
The Children’s Law Clinic continues to be a sought-after resource on matters concerning special education law. Advocacy at school “IEP” meetings has resulted in many improvements in the educational services our disabled clients receive. As a settlement of the legal claims of one of the clinic’s clients, the client was provided more than 150 hours of one-on-one reading instruction after his school district had failed to provide appropriate services to respond to his reading disability. Another client was provided his own private special education teacher after years of making no progress in his assigned classroom. In many other cases, the parents of children with disabilities obtained thoughtful legal counsel from the clinic students that allowed them to be more knowledgeable about their children’s rights and better advocates themselves. In a special community education project, spearheaded by a Clinic student, the Children’s Law Clinic produced a video that is posted on its website: “Parent-to-Parent: Navigating Special Education for Your Child.”
Law students find they are truly enriched by their participation in the Children’s Law Clinic. Here’s what one had to say in reflection on her clinic experience:
I have grown so much from this experience! At the beginning of the semester I was basically a crazy person who had no idea what was going on. Now I feel much more prepared for being a lawyer. I have learned to see myself as a future attorney rather than just a student from this experience. The fact that my clients had enough confidence in me to let me represent them is still a little shocking to me! I am glad for their confidence, because I know it helped me see myself as a capable advocate.
Both the results the Clinic obtains for its clients and the skill development it fosters in its law students make the Children’s Law Clinic a vital organization at Duke Law School and in the Durham region of North Carolina.