Illustration by Neil Slave











Tom Geraghty, professor of law and director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic

photo by Michelle Litvin




Third-year law student Steven Yao, who has been working at the Community Law Clinic since fall 2000, advises a young client.

photo by Andrew Campbell



From left, Steve Drizin, associate professor of law and supervising attorney at the Children and Family Justice Center; Bernardine Dohrn, the center's director; and Cheryl Graves, an attorney for the center, confer in Dohrn's office.

Photo by Michelle Litvin

The boy in the courtroom at the Juvenile Justice Center in Chicago is barely tall enough to see over the judge’s bench. He is surrounded by people trying to help him regain control of his life: his mother, his lawyer, a social worker, two caseworkers from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and others.

According to one of the adults, the boy is "a serious, major drug dealer." Associate Judge Marianne Jackson (WCAS70) has seen him before, and as he fidgets she admonishes him to "wipe that look off your face and listen to what I’m telling you." She initiates a series of moves aimed at getting him off the streets and into medical treatment for his bipolar disorder. At the tender age of 12, this boy is running out of time, and she knows it.

She leans forward in her chair and tells the group that they must work together to help to save the child. "It is my intention," she says in a soft but firm voice, "to do everything in my power to get him out of the clutches of the gangs — or die trying." It is tough, compassionate, inclusive justice, and for a long time it was missing from the Cook County system.

"Juvenile Court in the early 1990s was seen as a place of exile for lawyers, social workers, judges and probation officers," says Bernardine Dohrn, director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic. "Everyone who worked there saw it as a place where you sent people who otherwise couldn’t do the job."

Once a model for the nation and the world, the court had deteriorated physically and spiritually.

In the American justice system in the late 19th century, children were treated as adults, and those sentenced to jail were placed with adult offenders. A group of Chicago women, led by Julia Lathrop and Lucy Flower, close associates of the noted social reformer Jane Addams, convinced Illinois lawmakers of the need to establish a separate system of justice for juveniles.

One of the hallmarks of their efforts was to raise public awareness of the developmental differences between children and adults. They argued that these differences made young children less culpable for their actions and more receptive to rehabilitation. Their work was successful, and the first juvenile court in the nation started in Chicago in 1899.

The reformers and the children who benefited from their vision would not have recognized that court nearly a century later. Politicians, vowing to "get tough on crime," passed legislation that eroded many of the protections offered in the past.

Punishment replaced rehabilitation. More children faced charges as adults. Mired in huge caseloads and backlogs, plagued by cynicism and scandal, weighted down by politics, the juvenile court had become an institution that demoralized those who worked there and those who sought its services.

It was that court that Dohrn found in 1990 when she received a grant to study juvenile justice issues and systemwide reforms. After a year of research in Illinois and in juvenile courts around the nation, Dohrn approached Tom Geraghty (L69), director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at the law school and an international leader in the field of juvenile justice, with a two-pronged idea for reform.

"The strategy initially was to engage Northwestern law students in the day-to-day work of representing children and families out at juvenile court," Dohrn says, "and also to bring to bear research and advocacy, public education and community involvement, to reform the juvenile court of Cook County. The goal was to restore its status as a leading light instead of an embarrassment and a disgrace."

The proposal received the green light, and in 1991 the law school established the Children and Family Justice Center. The hands-on legal involvement was a crucial element of the plan. "From my perspective, the strategy was pie in the sky unless we could convince the people at the court that we were going to be there for the long haul," says Steve Drizin (L86), supervising attorney at the center. "We were in the courts on a regular basis, and we were taking a lot of serious cases. I think we demonstrated through our work that we were not just going to be ivory tower academics lobbing pot shots at the court and the people in the court system."

Staff members threw themselves into the work, writing op-ed pieces on the issues, speaking at public forums, collaborating with other law schools and experts in the field, organizing conferences and drawing on the experiences of successful juvenile courts around the country.

They set out to find ways to break the logjam that clogged the intake process at the court. According to a law school study, in 1987 about 3,000 active cases in the child protection division were pending; by 1991, the figure rose to about 15,000; and by 1995 it exceeded 40,000. In the delinquency division, they found that many of the cases were not of a serious enough nature to warrant being in court at all, and nearly 60 percent of the cases were dropped before they went to trial.

"We were going through all of the trouble of assigning lawyers and having kids locked up in detention, victims and witnesses showing up in court, and then the case would be dropped," Dohrn says. "Rather than better screening and gatekeeping at the front end, we were sorting it out after a lot of time and money had been committed. So the kids were learning the wrong lesson, and the victims were learning the wrong lesson, and everyone was hurt by that."

A break came in 1994 with the appointment of a new chief judge who amazed everyone by declaring that reforming Juvenile Court was his first priority. He appointed two well-regarded presiding judges and began to improve the professionalism of the court and the morale of the staff.

It was around this time that the mission of the center began to evolve. Originally intending to represent children’s needs in matters before the juvenile court, the lawyers found themselves dealing more and more with collateral issues that affected their clients’ lives. In many instances these issues had a direct bearing on the behavior that led to the trouble in the first place.

"We ended up changing our focus and becoming what we now call a ‘comprehensive children’s law center’ because we found that we could not represent kids in court without representing their multiple interests," Dohrn says. So they began branching out into additional areas of the law, including physical and mental health, immigration, education, school discipline, domestic violence, child abuse, custody and adoption.

As the center took on a more holistic approach to juvenile justice, Dohrn and the staff wanted to offer their services out in the community, establishing a presence right where their clients lived and worked. One outgrowth of this is the Community Law Clinic on Chicago’s Near West Side, and another is the network of Community Panels for Youth operating in six neighborhoods throughout Chicago.

With the volume of cases growing every year, the center relies heavily on the pro bono contributions of a network of attorneys practicing in Chicago firms. The benefits flow both ways. The center draws on topnotch legal talent to help represent its clients, and the lawyers get a break from the sometimes tedious work practiced at their firms.

"To me, it’s so much more meaningful and rewarding to be fighting for an individual’s interest rather than the financial interests of a corporation," says Tom Ratcliffe (L97). A civil litigation attorney at a Chicago firm, he recently worked with the center on an aggravated battery case. He became so close to his client that "they had me over to dinner a few times. I became kind of a new member of the family," Ratcliffe says.

Bill Barnes (WCAS92, L99), another Chicago attorney, finds the same satisfaction. "I’m in a large corporate firm," Barnes says. "It’s so nice to have a human element to my work."

Drizin says involving outside attorneys has improved the way judges view the center’s clients and cases. "The judges respond to the private bar very differently than they do to those of us who appear in front of them regularly. It’s really changed the dynamics of the practice because the judges feel more accountable to them in many ways than they do to the rest of us."

In addition to the ongoing courtroom work, the center is actively involved in several policy reform initiatives.

Zero tolerance, or school exclusion, is one area of focus. A result, in part, of the rash of school shootings during the past decade, school systems across the country have put in place rigid standards of behavior for students. Most offenses are not as serious as carrying a gun in a backpack. Rather, students are being suspended for violating the dress code because their shirt isn’t tucked in, or taking a knife out of a lunch box to peel an apple and violating the weapons code.

"In criminal law there are standards of intent, and there are assumptions of innocence as well as procedures of due process," says Dohrn. "Zero tolerance incorporates no such standards." The center’s Angela Coin (L95), who is working with several pro bono attorneys and the American Bar Association to challenge the policy, says the Chicago Public School system suspended 23,000 students last year, amounting to 120,000 missed days of school.

"For a kid on probation, one of the conditions of that probation is to stay in school," Coin says. "Then the student gets kicked out for a minor infraction, and he's now violated his parole. Under this system the first response to rule-breaking is suspension. We’re trying to see how we can make school exclusion the last option and used only for the most serious offenses."

The treatment of the growing numbers of young girls in the criminal justice system is another area the center is exploring. In Chicago child offenders stay at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center anywhere from a single night to a year, depending on the infraction and the speed at which the case moves through the system. About 10 percent of the children housed there are girls.

To address their special needs, the Children and Family Justice Center came up with "Girl Talk," a weekly program at the detention center that offers support and education. "Back when we started, these girls were lost in the system," says Cheryl Graves, a center attorney who helped launch the project. "They were told they were ‘at risk’ and that they were ‘bad kids.’ We wanted to help them get some self-esteem."

Graves and the others found that many of the girls had been victims of abuse and had trouble discussing their problems. "Many of them had shut down," she says. "We wanted to create a space where they could learn different ways to express themselves."

A collaborative effort, the first for many of the girls, produced the Girl’s Talk Quilt, which depicted aspects of their lives on its panels. They had poetry sessions as well as dance and music classes, and the girls began to open up. "We want them to know that they are bigger than the crime they committed, that that’s not the sum total of who they are," Graves says. "We want them to know that there’s a group of committed women who care about them. We’re here to help them, and we’re going to be there to help when they get out."

Girl Talk also offers information on reproductive health, parenting, domestic violence, exercise, nutrition, conflict resolution, stress management and career planning.

The juvenile death penalty is the other major policy issue on which the center is working. Since 1993 only seven countries have reportedly executed juvenile offenders: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, Pakistan — and the United States. In the last three years the small number of nations known to have executed offenders convicted as children has further declined to only three, the DRC, Iran and the United States.

Collaborating with the American Bar Association, Amnesty International, a worldwide network of attorneys and others, the center is working to do away with juvenile capital punishment. "It’s barbaric, and the United States finds itself isolated and in extraordinary company," says Dohrn.

Pursuing a legislative strategy, the group is working to educate and provide resources to elected officials and legislatures in states that might be receptive to abolishing the sanction. At the same time they are working with international organizations and human rights groups to bring to bear international opposition. "The execution of people arrested as children is not necessary for public safety," Dohrn says. "Whatever purpose it once served, we as a society can now let it go."

One of the reasons for the palpable passion of the center's staff members is their belief that everyone is entitled to a shot at rehabilitation and a second chance. They cite a list of people who committed crimes as minors but under a gentler system were allowed the opportunity to turn their lives around: former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, Olympic great Bob Beamon, Ella Fitzgerald, Babe Ruth and a host of lawyers, judges, teachers and artists.

The staffers also know that statistics show that most minors break the law at some time during their youth and most never do it again. And they recognize that many juveniles commit crimes so they’ll be accepted by their peers, so they’ll have a place to fit in.

"I don’t think there’s such a thing as a bad kid," says Dohrn. "I think there are kids who do really bad things. But born bad or irredeemably bad? No. I feel like our students see themselves as these investigative forces who go out and learn the facts about these kids’ lives. Then we show the courts and school administrators and community groups the reasons that make this kid a whole person instead of them being defined by the one act he or she did in a 30-second period."

Geraghty agrees. "I think the kids we represent who do bad things for the most part have lived lives that the vast majority of the public just doesn’t understand or comprehend," he says. "We try and explain why it is so important that the court system, the judges and state’s attorneys understand the dynamic that leads kids to making bad choices."

As the work of the center approaches its second decade, the staff intends to continue to build on the strength of the past.

"One of the unique aspects of the center is the extent to which it collaborates with courts, agencies, child welfare organizations and other universities, locally, nationally and internationally," Geraghty adds. "The center’s emphasis on collaboration serves as a model for students who are interested in achieving law reform. Collaboration has also been key to the effort to implement positive changes in child welfare and juvenile justice."

Old-fashioned idealism plays a part, too. "I think the center’s real strength is its purpose," says Dohrn. "To me you can either treat law students as selfish, materialistic and driven toward their own wealthy futures, or you can treat them as whole human beings who also, like all of us, are in search of meaning. Law students are ‘meaning makers.’ Lawyers are ‘meaning makers.’ As are all human beings.

"You can’t underestimate the impact of working with poor people and with people who are routinely kicked around by the society and by the legal system that they confront. It takes you on a journey that makes you reexamine all of your choices and who you are in the world once you go to the West Side. I think that students and alumni are hungry for that opportunity."

Terry Stephan (GJ78) is a freelance writer based in Chicago.