Protecting Youth in the Justice System: A Recap of the 2019 Judicial and Bar Conference

By Jeffery Leon and John Murph

April 25, 2019

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What is the best way to protect marginalized youth who experience traumatic situations and end up navigating the D.C. justice system? On April 12 members of the bench and bar came together to address that question at the 2019 Judicial and Bar Conference, themed “Children and the Law: Protecting the Future.” Nearly 480 members of the legal community gathered for the plenary session, keynote luncheon, and 14 seminars focused on trauma, access to justice, and ameliorative methods like restorative justice.

The conference opened with remarks by D.C. Bar President Esther H. Lim, who shared the Bar’s myriad developments since the last conference in 2017, including the opening of the Bar’s headquarters, new initiatives by CEO Robert J. Spagnoletti, and the launch of the re-envisioned D.C. Bar Communities.

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D.C. Bar President Esther H. Lim highlighted some key developments at the Bar, including new leadership and a new, state-of-the-art headquarters.

In their respective remarks, D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby and D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Robert Morin emphasized the critical need to fill judicial vacancies on the D.C. Courts to ensure access to justice.

Moderated by D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, the morning’s plenary panel focused on the “New Juvenile Justice Challenge: Recognizing and Responding to Traumatized Children and Adolescents.” Dr. Matthew Biel, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, and Jennifer Morris, director of the Guardian ad Litem Program at the Children’s Law Center, both spoke at length about the effects of trauma on brain development. They also emphasized that unchecked stress can be extremely damaging mentally and physically, and dangerous for children who deal with poverty, harsh policing, racism, and more.

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In his remarks, D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Robert Morin focused on the impact of judicial vacancies on the court’s work.

 

Eduardo R. Ferrer, legal and policy director of D.C. Lawyers for Youth, cited some alarming statistics: 100 percent of young people in the child welfare system have suffered at least one case of trauma, and 92 percent of them have experienced more than one instance of trauma.

During the keynote luncheon, surprise guest D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser celebrated the service of attorneys, the courts, and the D.C. Bar and called for continued work toward enhancing access to justice for all.

Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Human Rights, provided the keynote speech, highlighting that it is a tumultuous time in American history with serious concerns around immigration, policing, and income disparity, and that attorneys must step up to face these challenges head on.

“I don’t think that this is the time for any of us, no matter where we sit, to sit on the sidelines. This work has never been easy, but our democracy does not protect itself,” she said.

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Keynote speaker Vanita Gupta of the Leadership Conference on Human Rights urged the legal community to rise up to the challenge in this “tumultuous time in American history.”

 

The afternoon seminars delved into topics such as the psychological toll of racism on youth, help for immigrant children involved in litigation, support for LGBTQ youth, positive alternatives to disciplinary exclusion, and child-focused parenting plans. During “Representation & Rehabilitation: Protecting the Post-Disposition Rights of Children,” the panel explored how lawyers can best provide sound legal counsel for children going through the juvenile court system.

“The lawyer can play a really crucial role in the DYRS [Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services] meeting in two capacities,” argued Nancy Glass, manager of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia’s Juvenile Services Program and the panel’s moderator. “The lawyer can be the firm, absolute, committed voice of the child to make sure that their point of view is heard among people who are making important decisions in their lives. And [the lawyer can] hold everybody to account for what was said later, because many things will be promised to the child at meetings, but many of these promises aren’t carried through.”