NCCU Juvenile Law Clinic Seeing the Human Side
By Bob Friedman
On a recent Monday morning in Courtroom 5D of the Durham County Courthouse, a 16-yearold boy facing felony and misdemeanor charges stood shyly and quietly in an orange prison jumpsuit. His mother pleaded with Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey for help breaking a bureaucratic logjam between her private insurance from work and Medicaid to get her son mental health treatment. Morey vowed to try to help break the logjam.
Sitting beside the mother was her attorney Belinda Williams, a 3L student at NCCU School of Law. Williams is enrolled in the school’s Juvenile Law Clinic. The clinic operates at the law school as a small law firm where students maintain regular office hours and meet with clients, such as the young boy and his mother. The clinic primarily represents juveniles, but the appointment in this case was for the mother on a motion to show cause.
Dorothy Hairston Mitchell was plucked from the Durham County Public Defender’s Office to become the clinic’s new director earlier this year aft er the clinic had been dormant for approximately two years.
“It was about really wanting to inspire and educate the students because I worked with so many parents and kids for many years and I found that it really takes a certain type of passion to be an eff ective advocate for the clients in this arena,” Mitchell said. “I try to get law students excited about juvenile law before they get out in practice and hopefully get them interested in this particular area because not a lot of attorneys have the desire to practice in this area.”
The clinic is a three-credit hour course. Students get a minimum of 128 hours of classroom training, office and courtroom experience.
Reflecting on her morning in court, Williams said, “I represented the mother to show the court that this mother has obeyed the orders given by the court to help the child and she has done everything possible. Everything you think a mother should do she tried to do for her child. It’s up to the juvenile to want the help, but, unfortunately, he is not at that point yet.”
Judge Morey, an outspoken advocate for raising the age for juveniles in juvenile court from 16 to 18, runs a much-lauded program to help juveniles who come before the court get on the right track. She welcomed the extra sets of hands in juvenile court.
“It’s the best hands-on learning experience for law students,” Morey said. “They do extensive work with the families, with the juveniles and they get to know them. These are hard cases; oft en, they are heart breaking cases. I hope the students will develop a passion for juvenile law.”
Williams plans to return to Miami aft er graduation to pursue a career in the juvenile justice system. “I understand being an imperfect teen, which I was. I understand the need for second chances and that sometimes there are underlying reasons for their actions that should not be detrimental.”
“I see working with each child as a chance for me to change something,” said Janel Okafor, a 3L who also worked cases while enrolled in the clinic. “These kids have a bright future. They get involved in these crimes, but to me it’s not the end. These kids are our future. They can change everything. The way I look at it, if you give these kids second chances, if we work on each child to fix whatever they have going on in their lives that to me is the start of something great.”
Oakfor plans to return home to Dallas to work in the area of juvenile justice.
From Mitchell’s experience in private practice and the public defender’s office, she knows the ins and out of juvenile law. Her infectious enthusiasm has boosted enrollment in the clinic from four students in the fall semester to a current enrollment of 12 students with more waiting to get in for the spring semester.
“I am super excited,” said Mitchell. “If I have 12 students every semester that’s 12 more future lawyers that I have the chance to inspire to get into juvenile law. And that’s not just affecting this community; it’s spreading across the country to local communities everywhere.
“In class, these students are getting the letter of the law. But the application of the law is what they are getting in the total clinic experience,” Mitchell continued. “They can see what the juvenile code says and what the theory is in the classroom; in the clinic, they can also see how to apply it. I want them to learn that it is more than a case. I want them to actually put the face with the situation and the case in general. It keeps them compassionate. It helps them see the human side. It’s not just a manila file.”
“It’s one thing to have training and read the books,” Okafor said. “It’s another thing to actually be in court and actually do it.”
“We get to know each juvenile as a total person,” Mitchell said. “We get all the background about the juveniles; their family history, whether they have mental health issues in the family, substance abuse history, and delinquency history. We learn so much about the juveniles that it helps the law student see that it’s more than just the law, application of it and getting in the court with your client. We are oft en engaged with court counselors, mental health and substance abuse case managers, school personnel and so on to assist the juvenile. It is especially important in juvenile court because the court takes a holistic approach by wrapping the juveniles with services and tools to help them in their overall life.”
“This experience is going to make me even more of an advocate for kids,” said Williams. “Even though the kids are involving themselves in bad behavior, there are certain reasons for that behavior. I understand where they are coming from and am not ready to simply label them as bad kids.”
“At the end of a day, I want students to say, I feel good about what I have done today and I have done some good work in this community for this client,” said Mitchell.
For more information on the Juvenile Law Clinic at NCCU Law School, contact Dorothy Hairston Mitchell at email@example.com.