Cuts close Child Protection Clinics

They gave law students a chance to help, gain experience.
Tuesday, August 9, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:35 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

When Jennifer Bukowsky entered law school, she knew she wanted to experience something more than corporate life. A former CPA, she’d already been there, done that.

“I was kind of disenchanted with the whole corporate lifestyle,” Bukowsky said. “I wanted to have experience working with public interest law before I chose a law firm over it . . . to see if there’s something more purposeful compared to the money you would lose.”

So in her second year of law school, Bukowsky worked in the Child Protection Clinic, one of three clinical programs at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s School of Law that gives students real world legal experience while serving the public.

But, students like Bukowsky will likely no longer be able to experience that “other side” of law. The Child Protection Clinics in Columbia and Kansas City are among a slew of programs that lost funding because of state budget cuts.  Both clinics, which help find permanent placement for children in the foster care system, were funded 100 percent by state grants. 

The cuts will mean the end of the programs unless the state or private grants emerge, said Tracy Gonzalez, MU law professor and director of the clinic.

Each grant — $150,000 per year — funded the professors’ salary and benefits.

“It’s very hard to handle - that just in an instant - it’s gone,” Gonzalez said. “I’m sorry to see it go because I worked so hard personally to create it, and we were just at the point where we were taking off.”

 Both clinics provided legal assistance to the Department of Social Services Children’s division. “The goal was to assist kids out of foster care,” Gonzalez said.

A former public defender and child abuse/neglect prosecutor, Gonzalez helped establish the program three years ago. “Kids are better off in permanent placement than sitting in foster care for years and years,” Gonzalez said.

There are 302 kids in the foster care system in Boone County, 1,164 in Jackson County and 11,308 statewide.

Gonzalez said that during the clinic’s three years, she and students found permanent placement for 85 to 90 children.

“This last year, we were well-established,” Gonzalez said. “People knew who we were. We served over 45 kids in one year. The judiciary is trusting us, the juvenile office is trusting us - we’re doing quality work. They became confident in the work the clinic students were doing.”

UMKC Child Protection Clinic director, Mary Kay O’Malley, said that since 2002 her clinic helped more than 300 children; 132 of those children received guardians as a result of the clinic.

Each semester, up to eight MU students took on an average of two to five cases. “One case could take up two huge, expandable file folders,” Gonzalez said.

The clinics represented the children’s division in cases where the division was seeking to terminate the parents’ rights to their children because of abuse or neglect. Terminating parental rights is a key step in moving the children toward adoption, said Gonzalez.

Students represented the childrens’ case workers, though not the children directly. They interviewed clients, drafted petitions, sat in on family planning sessions, held trials before judges and cross-examined witnesses.

They also participated in a class on child abuse/neglect law, taught by Gonzalez and O’Malley. The programs held mock trials in which students learned to question social workers as witnesses. The social workers, in turn, learned how to testify in court. The training was a free service to the Department of Social Services, Gonzalez said.

“The law school is known for its great clinics, and this was one of several,” said Larry Dessem, dean of the law school. “The legal profession is saying, ‘Why don’t law schools do more in practical training?’ There is simply no substitute for that sort of representation. When you have someone else’s livelihood or life in your hands, that’s a different experience.”

Ami Patel, a recent graduate and former clinic student, said the clinic helped her obtain her job as a prosecuting attorney in Springfield.

“One of the reasons they hired me is because of my experience with the child protection clinic,” said Patel, who was originally interested in tax law and accepted into several specialty programs. She chose state work instead because of her experience in the clinic. “They wanted people who are strong child’s advocates because there are a lot of abuse/neglect cases to prosecute.”

Although Bukowsky does not plan on working for the state, she hopes to represent children pro bono while working for a larger firm. “I would have been more interested in doing work like this if the clinic hadn’t been cut, to be honest with you,” she said.

Gonzalez said the program influenced many law students to find ways to work in the public interest. “It’s teaching an area that’s needed.”

“Even if you become a corporate attorney, it’s really important that you don’t forget those most in need, and it’s the kids.”

Children and law students aren’t the only losers,  O’Malley said. State attorneys in the children’s division are “understaffed and overwhelmed with legal issues,” she said.

Bob Bax, spokesman for the Department of Social Services, said that the program was beneficial to the department and students but budget constraints made it impossible to continue. The 10 department attorneys in both Jackson County and Boone County have an average of 15 to 18 cases at any given time, Bax said.

Because students have already enrolled for the coming semester, both programs will continue into the fall with the law schools absorbing the costs.

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