Duke Law's Guardian ad Litem Program wins N.C. Bar Award

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Outgoing GAL leader Matt Leerberg ’06 and his successor, Chris Richardson ’07Duke Law’s Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program has won the North Carolina Bar Association’s Outstanding Law Student Pro Bono Project Award for 2005. Outgoing GAL leader Matt Leerberg ’06 and his successor, Chris Richardson ’07, accepted the award at the NCBA convention in Asheville on June 24.

In the 2004-05 academic year, 22 Duke Law students volunteered as Guardians ad Litem, making long-term commitments to be the court-appointed representatives for allegedly abused and neglected children in Durham. Following 25 hours of training by the Durham County GAL program, the students were each assigned to represent children whose parents had been charged with abuse and neglect by the Department of Social Services, committing to two- and three-year terms so that the children, whose lives are frequently disrupted, could establish consistent and trusting relationships. They spent time with their young clients, and interviewed parents and various authorities in order to inform the court about the case and assist the judges in making their decisions.

“The GAL program puts law students in a position of enormous responsibility–speaking up for children on decisions that will impact the rest of their lives,” observed Associate Dean of Public Interest and Pro Bono Carol Spruill.

Student GALs have the opportunity to perform "investigations" into each child's life, including meeting with the child, the parent(s), the extended family, the Department of Social Services case worker, doctors, teachers, and other service providers. They prepare reports to be filed with the court, and participate in pre-trial negotiations as well as review hearings. Over the past year, the 22 student volunteers contributed an estimated 1300 hours and have served about 100 children.

Spruill applauds Leerberg’s leadership in recruiting students to the program as well as securing training slots for them with the Durham County GAL program. Last spring, he began adding another dimension to the program: periodic meetings of the Duke Law GAL students to hear about one another’s cases, offer support and advice, and listen to speakers talk on subjects of common interest.

“I am thrilled that Matt stepped forward to build up this program and look forward to it continuing to thrive,” said Spruill. “Thanks to the efforts of another student GAL leader, 3L Wyley Proctor, Duke Law students will have the opportunity to do advanced court work under the supervision of the GAL attorney in the coming academic year.”

While the GAL program represents a significant time commitment, Leerberg said that he and his fellow student volunteers benefit as much as the children they serve.

“The children I represent are constantly on my mind, and attending custody and review hearings sometimes pulls me out of class more than I’d like. Nevertheless, the union of analytical training in the classroom with advocacy training in the field provides a richer educational experience than I could achieve with books alone.”

“It puts the whole law school experience in perspective because you see how desperate people’s lives can be, right in our own community,” added Amy Curry ’07, who volunteered for the program in her first semester at Duke Law. “This is a way to really help Durham while we are here because you are not only helping children, you are helping families.”