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Pro bono leads to a career in children’s rights

Foster Kid
A cheerleading coach realized the best way to help her kids was through the law.

“What type of law do you plan on practicing?” I’m not sure if this question is dreaded universally among future law professionals or if the animosity, disgust, and hatred I have for this question is purely personal.

Although it’s a seemingly simple question, I grapple with a proper response. Do I tell the truth about my plans to be a children’s rights litigator? Do I pretend that I haven’t decided on a career path? Or do I just awkwardly act like I didn’t hear the question and hope it’s not repeated?

My mission in avoiding telling people the type of law I intend to practice doesn’t stem from shame or embarrassment; in fact, there was a time where I was excited to share my goal of becoming a children’s rights litigator.

I’m aware that the majority of lay individuals are unfamiliar with the fi eld, so I was excited to share some knowledge. To my dismay, my joy and excitement would quickly be trampled by such hypercritical remarks as, “How much does that pay?” or “You won’t make money doing that!”

Initially, I’d attempt to combat such remarks with an explanation, but I found that led to even more judgment. Over time and out of pure frustration, I found it easier to avoid talking about my career aspirations altogether.

Providing even more of a challenge, my journey to law school and dreams of being a children’s rights litigator stemmed from my time as a competitive cheerleading coach, which is a concept that’s not easily grasped by others. After all, how does one effectively help others understand there’s in fact a correlation between cheer bows, sparkly uniforms, and the law?

How I got here

If I’d have been asked seven years ago where I saw myself today, rest assured the answer wouldn’t have been law school. Honestly, if I had been asked even eight months before starting law school, that still wouldn’t have been the answer. I always believed my purpose in life was to coach competitive cheerleading; it was my passion and what I saw myself doing for the rest of my life. In fact, upon completing my bachelor’s degree, I was prepared to take a corporate management job in the competitive cheerleading field.

I coached competitive cheerleading for more than six years to about 150 at-risk and underprivileged girls and boys from ages 4 to 17 each year. The average cost of participation is $3,000 to $4,000, putting it out of reach for those kids. So we offered participation at no cost to our athletes.

I took my title as Coach Taylor, or as my cheerleaders called me, “Tay- Tay,” very seriously. My cheerleaders were more than just kids I coached. Every last one of them was like my child. I was technically just their cheer coach, but many times I played the role of a parent, friend, or teacher.

Sometimes, I held the responsibility of making sure kids had shoes to practice in, a ride to school in the morning, or that they simply ate a meal that day. There were times when the responsibility was too much. After all, I was a young adult myself. During those moments of feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, I’d remind myself that for some of these kids, I was all they had.

These were poor kids who were facing run-ins with the law, school behavioral problems, abuse or neglect in the home, vicious custody disputes, even teen pregnancy, and cheer was their only opportunity to escape the stress, worry, or turmoil at home.

The pivotal transition from cheerleading to law came when one of my cheerleaders didn’t show up to practice after a holiday break. I called her mom, who informed me that my cheerleader’s biological mother picked her up against her mom’s will a month and a half before, and mom hadn’t seen or heard from her since.

In the fight to get her daughter back, the mom sought help from anyone willing to give her the time of day. Sadly, many legal professionals turned her away and told her she could have avoided this situation if she’d consulted with an attorney regarding custody from the beginning.

After months of fighting to get her child back, she was left with no legal recourse. She had to come to terms with the fact that the child she’d raised for the past 14 years would probably never return home.

After six years of seeing my cheerleaders face abuse, neglect, custody disputes, and more; after losing a kid I coached for years; after seeing my cheerleaders lose a valuable teammate; and more importantly, after seeing a mother lose a child, I finally reached my breaking point.

I decided I could no longer settle for the false idea that my ability to make a difference in these kids’ lives was limited to what was granted to me as a cheer coach. I knew becoming a children’s rights litigator would give me the power I needed to help these kids and kids just like them.

The advice I got alarmed me

During my 1L summer internship, I worked with Acadiana Legal Services in Lafayette, La., in its Child in Need of Care unit. CINC represents children in need of care and families in need of supervision and handles parental rights termination and child abuse and neglect cases. The office also handles special education cases as well as school disciplinary proceedings.

Although I knew children’s rights litigation was my career goal, until then, I had no exposure to the field.

I used my time as an intern there to gain as much knowledge and hands-on experience as possible. I learned three hard, yet invaluable, lessons that have prepared me for my future in this field.

You’ll be emotionally drained. In my first case, I found myself crying like a baby during a neglect hearing. Trying to pull myself emotionally together, I told myself that I must be too sensitive for this job. I couldn’t fathom how the judge, attorneys, and others in the courtroom could hold it together. I figured they all were cold-hearted or had become emotionally numb.

I eventually learned that having the urge to cry after reading some of the case files is common and normal.

There are also moments of anger and pure hatred for some of the things that are done to these innocent children. One attorney said, “Being emotional doesn’t make you weak or not the right fit for this job; it just makes you human. It’s not your emotional strength that will make you successful but the strength that empowers you to be an effective advocate on behalf of the children.”

You’ll get personally attached. I spent time with some of the kids in the CINC unit, and it was always the highlight of my day. Even though these kids were in the midst of complete turmoil, they still carried so much joy in their hearts. They were always happy and excited to talk, and I was always happy and excited to listen. During small conversations, I learned their likes and dislikes, favorite colors, favorite food, hobbies, etc. After spending time with the kids, I found myself getting easily attached and wanting to foster them all.

I know my tiny one-bedroom apartment couldn’t accommodate us all, but it would be filled with love. Trust me, I’ve considered it. But reality sets in, and I realize that I can’t fit 50+ kids in my apartment.

I asked the CINC attorneys how they do their jobs without becoming attached or wanting to take every child in. They reassured me that wanting to give every kid a home, raise them as your own, show them the love they deserve, and protect them from the world is normal.

You develop relationships with the kids in which they trust you and rely on you to effectively advocate for them. But once a child has been permanently placed, a judgement has been rendered regarding the permanency of the child, and the case has come to an end, you must rest assured that you did well by that kid. You can’t get distracted or caught up in the what-ifs regarding that single case because there are more cases and more children who need your attention and focus.

You’ll want to save them all. After my internship, as I prepared to go into my second year of law school, I had not only gained legal knowledge, but I now also had hands-on experience in children’s litigation. I thought I had my next steps all figured out.

As quickly as I became cocky in my newfound legal experience, I received some humbling advice from Catherine Krebs, the director of the ABA Section of Litigation Children’s Rights Litigation Committee. She said, “When I was a young lawyer, I was focused on ‘saving’ my clients. But over time, I came to realize that the job of a children’s lawyer isn’t about saving but instead about empowering our child clients and amplifying their voices.”

In that moment, I realized I didn’t have everything figured out. And not to be dramatic, but I began to question my entire life. I didn’t perceive her statement as a personal attack against my journey. But I couldn’t rationalize how the job of a children’s lawyer isn’t about saving. Her advice contradicted my belief that the drive to want to save children is the basis of what makes a good children’s advocate.

I realized that he role of a children’s attorney isn’t limited to making a child’s life better by saving her from the turmoil she’s facing. The job of a children’s attorney is to stand with the child and fight back against the injustices she’s facing, to be her voice in telling the world when enough is enough, and to give her back the power that was taken from her.

Advice I can give you

As you journey through law school, people will give you advice on what they believe is the ultimate solution for getting into and through law school and choosing the most successful career path. I won’t be contributing to that unsolicited advice.

I don’t have much advice to give because I’m still trying to figure it out myself. What I can say is that there will be times during your journey through law school where you’ll question your abilities; I frequently question my own.

In the midst of those trying times, I find the only thing that keeps me empowered is reminding myself why I began this journey. However your journey has begun, go forth with purpose and determination.

This article is an edited and abridged version of an article that originally appeared on the Children’s Rights Litigation website on September 27, 2019, published by the ABA Section of Litigation Children’s Rights Litigation Committee. ©2019 by the American Bar Association. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Read the full version of this article and learn more about the ABA Section of Litigation.