Law School Opens New Juvenile Justice Clinic

Law School Opens New Juvenile Justice Clinic

Joy Suder’s sons sometimes ask her, “Did you win in court today, Mom?”

But that’s a hard question to answer for someone working on juvenile cases, says Suder, JD’08, a former Douglas County assistant public defender and current assistant professor of law at Creighton.

“This kind of work is all about redefining your ideas of success and victory. I will sometimes say: ‘Today we won because this child wasn’t removed from their home. Today we won because my client made it through a hearing without yelling at their mom. Today we won because my client opened up to me in a way they haven’t before.’”

Suder is the director of the School of Law’s newly established Juvenile Justice Clinic, which trains law students through a hands-on and holistic experience serving the client and their family from all angles.

The grant-funded clinic will serve as a small firm, with student-attorneys providing free legal services for youth in the Separate Juvenile Court of Douglas County. The clinic is funded for five years by a nearly $1 million gift from anonymous donors.

The clinic will be staffed each semester by third-year law students certified as student-attorneys under the Nebraska Supreme Court student practice rule. Each student will enroll in a semester-long class, receive intensive training to advocate for their clients and serve as lead attorneys on a variety of cases.

“With the clinic, we hope to set a foundation where graduates have a baseline skill set to know where to start, how to go forward, what questions to ask,” Suder says. “The clinic’s mission is to create better outcomes for everyone involved, most especially the children we’re serving.”

School of Law student Sidnea Brown, among the clinic’s first cohort, says she’s eager to gain hands-on experience in the legal field she’s considering.

“Through the clinic, I’ll be getting the experience to build relationships with my clients, to gain their trust and meet their needs,” Brown says. “We’re learning the law in the classroom, but we’re getting to apply the law in real-world scenarios in the courtroom. To get that experience before I graduate is amazing.”

With the help of student-attorneys like Brown, the clinic aims to help reverse a number of concerning trends in the juvenile court system. A 2019 study by Voices for Children in Nebraska, for instance, demonstrated issues in delinquency and status offenses, excessive detention, education needs and racial inequity for youth involved in juvenile court in Nebraska.

The study found that prosecution of felony offenses for youths has increased by 142% since 2015. While African Americans represented 12% of the population in Douglas County, they accounted for 55% of people in the juvenile court system.

Creighton’s School of Law is well-suited to house a Juvenile Justice Clinic, says Dean Joshua Fershée. The school’s Milton R. Abrahams Legal Clinic serves clients in need through cases in domestic violence, immigration, and civil and housing matters.

“Our experiences serving the community and our strong relationships with the judiciary, local attorneys and area nonprofit organizations will allow the new clinic to have an almost immediate impact,” Fershée says. “This is truly an opportunity to live our mission — educating attorneys in the Jesuit tradition.”