Child Advocacy Project provides real world lessons

The few of us who could fit in the courtroom were all cramped waiting for the cases to begin. It was a typically hot summer day in Georgia, and the court's calendar was full. There was a young boy sitting with his attorney trying to look aloof while the judge entered the room. As each of the attorneys presented their positions, the amiable lighthearted combat of juvenile court commenced. Then, without any warning, the judge broke in and started asking the boy questions about the group of kids he had been hanging out with and how they spend their time. The boy sunk in his chair and murmured "nobody's, nothing's and uh-huh's." Immediately, the judge commanded the boy to sit up straight, put his hands in his lap and address the court with proper English. He then gave the boy one of his wonderful bits of advice: "Those boys you've been hanging out with may have change in their pocket, but they have jail on their breath." The judge was very stern with the boy and ordered him to come up to court the next day and start trimming the weeds to earn the money he owed for restitution or else he would be promptly sent off to the detention center.

The next case was called and, another boy came in not looking much different from the previous kid. He had been caught throwing rocks at a train. This time the judge took a softer tone and began asking the boy about train trivia: What kinds of trains are their? Did the boy know various songs written about trains? How have trains changed over the years? The boy courteously answered his questions, mostly having no idea about the references being made. This time the judge ordered that the boy go to the local library and write a report about old trains and to return it to him in two weeks.

Through these cases, as well as others, I watched how the judge could decipher when to be stern and when to be compassionate. Lessons like that, which can't be conveyed in a classroom, taught me the most about how law transcends books into day-to-day life. Each of the students working in the Child Advocacy Project enriched our learning and law school experience by working in the juvenile courts.

When I entered law school, I was convinced the only law I would practice would be legislation and policy formation. While working in Newton County Juvenile Court this summer, my eyes were opened to many other possibilities. Judge Costley was an amazing mentor to both myself and Keren Gilbert, another Child Advocacy intern. By opening doors and through his own example, Judge Costley highlighted the many aspects of practicing juvenile law. He encouraged us to visit the families that we were working with so that we could expose ourselves to life outside the courtroom. We were able to go on home visits with the Department of Children and Family Services counselors, observe interviews of children who had been sexually assaulted and attend policy meetings both at the state capitol and at the local community level. We were able to speak extensively with law enforcement personnel, Department of Children and Youth Services employees, as well as kids and families that came through court. While working in Newton County I was able to learn invaluable lessons that helped broaden my perspective and enrich the classroom experiences I received during my first year of law school. The Child Advocacy Project offered invaluable insight by highlighting through hands-on experiences why law school is important and how we can all translate classroom lectures into important life skills necessary in overcoming daily hurdles.

The Child Advocacy Project also gave me the opportunity to be engaged in concrete law-related projects. Specifically, both Keren and I worked with Judge Costley on an article titled "A Sign of Hope: Promising Solutions in Response to Youth Violence" published in the Journal of the Medical Association of Georgia. We also helped research and edit ethical standards for attorneys and judges working in juvenile courts. It was through projects like these that we were able not only to improve our legal writing and researching skills, but also produce bodies of work that can be useful for the juvenile court community. The Child Advocacy program provided all of its interns in the various counties with a variety of opportunities while helping the juvenile courts with their overwhelming caseloads.

In retrospect, my favorite memories of the project are the moments that I spent in Judge Costley's courtroom and chambers. I learned how judges can have a positive impact on children's lives. Judge Costley used his authority to steer young people in the right direction. For some he provided much needed discipline and guidelines, while others received his compassion and encouragement. For many he offered a piece of what their lives lacked. Judge Costley illustrated how judges can be influential in the lives of troubled children, rather than simply a process to get through on the way to a detention hall or foster care. While the judge's actual time with the children is often minuscule, the decisions he makes and the tone he creates can set the stage for some changes and some happy endings. Judges are not going to eradicate delinquency or depravity, judges aren't going to help every kid who comes through the door. But they can be a catalyst for some success stories, and that is what's most important.

Jennifer Duck is a second-year law student.

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