Children’s Justice Attorney Education Program to help better serve rural children and families

The shortage of attorneys in rural Nebraska creates barriers for individuals accessing and receiving crucial legal assistance — especially for children and families facing some of the most difficult of life challenges. A group of legal experts, including Legal Aid of Nebraska attorneys, are looking to change that by improving the gaps in rural legal services through education and training.

The collaboration, known as the Children’s Justice Attorney Education program (CJAE), will reach all areas of the state.

Michelle Paxton, Director of the Children’s Justice Clinic at the University of Nebraska College of Law (COL), is leading the program, inspired by her clinic’s efforts to support law students on the intricacies of representing children as Guardians ad Litem.

“Nebraska Law and Legal Aid of Nebraska are dedicated to serving underrepresented groups and improving access to justice. This partnership will further advance this goal by providing extensive training, expert case consultation, and reflective practice to attorneys working in juvenile court,” Paxton said.

The CJAE, a partnership between Nebraska Law and the Center on Children, Families and the Law (CCFL), has a goal to increase the ability and accessibility of court-appointed and juvenile county attorneys to better serve rural children and families, including low-income, Latinx and Indigenous populations.

Legal Aid attorney Laurel Johnson, with many years of experience in juvenile court for Legal Aid in Lancaster County, serves as project manager of the CJAE. “It just kind of all came together,” she said.

“Representing children and families involved in juvenile court is complex. There are not only state and federal laws to be aware of, but these cases often involve trauma, abuse, mental health, and substance abuse issues.”

A group of legal experts, including Legal Aid of Nebraska attorneys, are looking to improve the gaps in rural legal services through education and training efforts.

“When providing representation to children and parents involved in juvenile court, ensuring attorneys have the support and training they need is essential. The CJAE is available to provide that support. I am excited for the opportunity to be a part of the CJAE team,” Johnson said.

Paxton said that Johnson is uniquely suited to serve as the CJAE’s project manager because of her experience representing children, youth and parents in juvenile court.

“In this role [in the court], she developed positive working relationships with stakeholders and parties as she advocated zealously for her clients. She will draw on this expertise and her deep roots to rural Nebraska to ensure the CJAE’s success,” Paxton said.

“Nebraska Law and Legal Aid of Nebraska are dedicated to serving underrepresented groups and improving access to justice.” 

The CJAE will provide rural attorneys extensive education in federal and state child welfare laws for a period of approximately eight months, including biweekly case consultation and reflective practice.

Laurel Johnson attorney

Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Laurel Johnson Photo by Jenna Hynek

 

Attorneys participating in the program will receive invaluable information and insight into the subjects necessary to become strong advocates, including trauma and child development, substance use, domestic violence, complex family dynamics, and specialized Indian Child Welfare (ICWA) act training, according to a release from the University of Nebraska.

Johnson said the CJAE team is currently in the building phase but has tentative plans for participants to begin courses in May of 2022 with the initial cohort around ten attorneys.

Pat Carraher, managing attorney of Legal Aid’s Lincoln office, said that Laurel is the perfect person for the job.

“Laurel is passionate about working with families involved in the juvenile justice system. She has devoted her career to this field,” he said

“When providing representation to children involved in juvenile court, ensuring attorneys have the support and training they need is essential. The CJAE is available to provide that support.”

“Starting a project from the ground floor can take time and have challenges. Laurel is up to the task and has the skills and experience required to ensure its success,” Carraher said.

Johnson said the program will include training on working with children and representing parents.  Attorneys taking part in the curriculum will learn about relevant laws and receive practical guidance, like commonly used motions and pleadings. The program will also include experts available to provide guidance and case consultation, including mental health professionals, psychologists, and social workers.

Making a difference for rural Nebraskan families from low-income backgrounds.

Born and raised in rural Nebraska, Johnson is excited about the opportunity. “There’s a great need and it’s close to my heart because of where I grew up.”

“I know some of the unique challenges in rural areas, especially when it comes to access. There’s simply not the network of resources available.”

She explains how a client in Lancaster county would have access to treatment, drug testing and agencies to provide supervision for parenting time. “But in rural Nebraska, you might have to travel  several hours to access those things.”

Johnson’s experience representing children and families in court with Legal Aid will help serve as the backbone for the success of this project. “I’m passionate about my clients and my work. But my experience lends itself well to train other people and to create a program curriculum to provide ongoing support to attorneys.”

 

Need additional information? 

Jen Litton, Development Coordinator at Legal Aid of Nebraska, is the author of this article. Amber Ediger, Director of Marketing and Digital Strategy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law, also contributed to this article.

 

Hero image of Michelle Paxton courtesy of University Communication. 

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