Fostering Hope

Penn State’s Children’s Advocacy Clinic helps young clients with life and legal issues

Published in 2014 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers — June 2014

During her years as a social worker in Virginia’s public school system, Professor Lucy Johnston-Walsh noticed that lawyers would often spend only a few minutes talking to their young clients before walking into court.

“I was concerned about the legal representation the children were receiving,” says Johnston-Walsh, now founder and director of the Children’s Advocacy Clinic at The Dickinson School of Law of The Pennsylvania State University. “That’s what motivated me to get my J.D. I had the idea of the clinic before I even went to law school.”

Equipped with both a master’s degree in social work and a law degree, Johnston-Walsh knew she could make a powerful difference in the child welfare system.

In 2006, after a stint as policy director for Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a statewide child advocacy organization, she founded the Children’s Advocacy Clinic at Penn State. The clinic not only trains law students in children’s legal issues, it also brings in graduate students studying social work and child psychiatry. “The cases and the children’s lives are so complicated,” Johnston-Walsh says. “Their problems aren’t just legal.”

Many cases also involve health issues, “typically a result of abuse and trauma,” she says. “The children may have physical ailments, like broken bones, but more commonly suffer trauma-related mental health issues.”

The Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas assigns the clinic cases, and the clinic only takes on a few each year, so students’ caseloads stay small. Most involve child abuse or neglect.

“In one case, we have a newborn child who is addicted to drugs and subsequently has health issues that we’re addressing,” says Johnston-Walsh. “We also have an 18-year-old client who really wants to go to college, but she faces many obstacles. She’s come from a horribly abusive background, and has experienced multiple placements as a foster child. Each time a child is moved, there is a traumatic impact.”

Influencing public policy is also a key focus of the clinic. Volunteers meet with lawmakers, draft sample bills, participate in statewide working groups and testify at legislative hearings.

In recent years, the clinic has advocated for important changes to Pennsylvania foster care law. “The foster care system used to discharge 18-year-olds and say, ‘Go on your way and good luck,’” Johnston-Walsh says. “Research shows that kids who left care at that age had very poor outcomes.” After changes to state law passed in 2012, young people can now stay in care until age 21. 

Working with the students at Penn State keeps Johnston-Walsh energized. Each semester she enlists about eight students, who collectively log approximately 3,000 pro bono hours over the school year and around 1,000 paid hours during the summer. “They bring a lot of passion to their cases,” she says. 

She hopes that the clinic’s efforts can put its young clients on the right path to move forward. “There’s lots of research that shows if kids can receive the services they need, they can come through difficulties,” she says. “To me it’s all about preventing future problems.”

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