“Serendipity”: Looking back at the Clinic’s formation

The Clinic’s roots trace back to the first experiential course at Georgetown Law, the E. Barrett Prettyman Program, which started in 1960 as a fellowship for recent graduates devoted to providing representation to indigent clients in criminal cases. By 1971, other clinical programs at Georgetown had sprouted, including the Institute for Public Representation and a Criminal Justice Clinic that spun off from the Prettyman Fellowship Program. Two years later in 1973, former Georgetown Law Dean (then Professor) Judy Areen founded the Juvenile Justice Clinic and hired Professor Wally Mlyniec to serve as its first director.

Professor Mlyniec, who still serves as Senior Counsel to the Clinic, is a Georgetown Law alumnus and was only a few years out of law school when Professor Areen hired him to be Georgetown Law’s first full-time clinical instructor. As a student, he worked as an investigator with the Prettyman Program and the D.C. Public Defender and volunteered in the District of Columbia Juvenile Court helping the Court meet the mandates of the Supreme Court case of In re Gault. Following his graduation, he worked for a Georgetown Law faculty member on a research project through which he represented many youth in delinquency cases. Professor Mlyniec initially agreed to work with Dean Areen’s new juvenile defense clinic for two years, planning to leave to pursue a career as a public defender. Those two years turned into 50.

“Serendipity,” Professor Mlyniec said. “My whole existence here is serendipitous.”

At the time of the Clinic’s founding, providing lawyers for children charged with crime was a somewhat novel enterprise. It was only in 1967, following the Supreme Court case In re Gault, that children received the right to have legal representation in delinquency cases. The legal system was still figuring out how to treat juvenile courts and Professor Mlyniec was asked to serve on the committee that revised the District of Columbia’s juvenile court rules. Excellent legal defense was new in the juvenile court. Public Defenders and Clinic students were now advancing legal arguments that had never been heard in that court before to expand the rights of children in Washington

Additionally, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw the explosion of clinical teaching. Prior to that time, law was taught in accordance with the traditional academic institution model, with little opportunity for practical learning experiences. Professor Mlyniec and other clinical faculty at Georgetown and across the country were at the forefront of creating a distinct clinical pedagogy that merged theoretical knowledge with legal practice. These initial clinical faculty members began to unite yearly for conferences to develop and refine the pedagogy, review videotapes of each others’ clinical teaching, and critique and improve their teaching methods. Over the years, Georgetown became a center for training teachers in the clinical method.

Along with these conferences, the Clinic’s own work shaped the development of its focus and teaching: unifying theory and practice. Initially, the Clinic hoped to handle not just juvenile delinquency and education cases, but any case involving a child that was brought to its door. Soon after its conception, Professor Mlyniec and Professor Areen, who helped run the Clinic for its first few years, realized that if they were going to be part of an academic institution rather than a legal aid office, they had to prioritize cases that provided a rich theoretical learning experience for students.

For Professor Mlyniec, the most memorable of these early cases was a class action lawsuit brought with the Children’s Defense Fund on behalf of handicapped children who were institutionalized without thorough assessment by the District’s child welfare agencies. More than 400 children were in the group. While a small number of children had disabilities that required institutional help, most were placed in institutions for insufficient reasons and were capable of living with support in foster homes and group homes. Some could even be returned to their birth families. Ultimately, the city settled the case and agreed to have every institutionalized child reevaluated by independent professionals, who would determine whether institutionalization was necessary. If not, the children would be placed in family-like situations. Professor Mlyniec litigated the case and monitored the case post-settlement during which most of the children were removed from institutions and placed in foster families and group homes.

“That’s the one case I will remember for the rest of my life because it had such a wide impact. It affected not only members of the class, but also all of the kids that came after them. No longer could they just be labeled handicapped because of a bad assessment and then pushed out of the sight and never thought of again,” Professor Mlyniec said. “That’s the one that I’ll remember forever.”

Committing to holistic advocacy and policy reform

By 2001, Professor Mlyniec became Associate Dean for Clinical and Public Interest Programs and his duties expanded. Georgetown appointed former fellow Kristin Henning, who had joined the staff of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and led its Juvenile Unit after her fellowship, as a visiting professor and Deputy Director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic. Professor Henning was appointed to the full-time faculty after a few years and ultimately took on the Clinic’s directorship when Professor Mlyniec stepped into the Senior Counsel role about 10 years ago. When she rejoined the Clinic team as a visiting professor, one thing she wanted to implement from her time with the Public Defender Service was a holistic approach to advocacy.

“When I talk about holistic advocacy, it’s a recognition that the legal case, the delinquency case, is a critical foundation of the Clinic, but it is just a small portion of the kid’s life, and so we need to take a more holistic approach,” Professor Henning said. Bringing this approach to the Clinic involved hiring social work specialists as adjunct professors to provide insight on accessing mental health services, vocational opportunities, tutoring, and other support the children and their families need. Additionally, the Clinic hired an adjunct professor who specializes in education advocacy because so many of its young clients are referred to the juvenile legal system by their schools and because the judges care so much about its clients’ school performance. Education advocates assist the Clinic in navigating this intertwined relationship and managing other factors such as educational deficits and school discipline.

As Professor Henning stepped into her role as Clinic Director, this holistic advocacy grew to encompass other work within the community.

“Witnessing the disruptive, harmful impact the juvenile legal system has on children—especially Black and brown children—makes it difficult to do the work without wanting to blow up the entire system,” she said. To address these concerns, the Clinic has launched a number of racial justice initiatives, engaged in systemic reform, and brought on Professor Eduardo Ferrer, a former Clinic student, to assist with local policy reform. He now serves as Policy Director of the Clinic’s Juvenile Justice Initiative.

“In thinking about my expectations for the Clinic, I realized that we, at an institution like Georgetown, have a responsibility to our city,” Professor Henning said. “We have a responsibility to use our resources to effect change in the city.” The Clinic’s commitment to policy reform and engaging with local officials in city government and the juvenile delinquency system dates back to Professor Mlyniec’s work forming juvenile court rules.

Racial justice is now a central focus of the Clinic & Initiative’s work. That focus was inspired, in part, by Professor Henning’s concern that she has only represented four white clients in more than 25 years of representing children in D.C. Every other client she has served has been African American. The explicit and implicit biases that pervade the legal system present unique challenges in the juvenile legal system. For example, sociological studies show that people—including police officers, judges, and prosecutors—overestimate the age of Black children, which can lead to harsher treatment. Continuing effective advocacy while navigating these prejudices is one of the hardest tasks for Clinic students.

“You have to change the narrative of the conversation to make sure everybody is seeing the strength and resilience of these kids and not just seeing the bad thing that they may have done,” Professor Mlyniec said.

Inspiring perspective and fostering skills in Clinic students

Clinic participants are all third-year students who work as front-line defenders for children in delinquency cases. They go out in the field and to local detention facilities to interview and counsel clients. They litigate and argue Constitutional issues under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments in court, through written and oral advocacy. They conduct fact investigation, cross-examine police officers and other witnesses in court hearings, and meet with their clients’ families. In some semesters, Clinic students take cases to trial. In sum, they receive a thorough education in criminal litigation and change the lives of dozens of children yearly.

“I think the most rewarding part of the work is the relationships we develop with the clients we serve,” Professor Henning said. “Another really rewarding piece, second only to our clients, is the fabulous relationship and mentoring that we share with our law students. I love watching our students evolve beautifully into excellent lawyers and advocates for children!”

Professor Mlyniec echoed a similar sentiment, stating that the most rewarding part of the job is watching the students, from the first day of orientation until the end-of-year celebratory crab party, learn about the positive impact they can have on the world, one child at a time.

“We have watched them develop to the point where they can be appointed to a new case and tell us how to proceed, as opposed to coming in our offices and asking, ‘what should I do next?,’” he said. Clinic students also gain a deeper understanding of the realities of life for children who are poor people of color. They begin to learn things about themselves, as well as the way systems work, and frequently leave with a different perspective of how the world works.

“Aside from the crab party, we have a last class where students just reflect on their work during the year,” Professor Mlyniec said. “We get to see the confidence the students have developed and their maturity as young lawyers. We see students on the cusp of their careers who now know that they can do things they never thought they could do. All of those things develop in a relatively short time. It is both ennobling and humbling for Kris and me to be a part of that.”

Emerging as a national leader for juvenile advocacy, racial justice, and clinical teaching

Over the years, the Clinic’s reach has expanded widely. While its main goal is still training students, Professors Henning and Ferrer now train attorneys from across the country in the practice of youth advocacy through various programs under the Juvenile Justice Initiative, which was established in 2015. The Initiative oversees the Youth Defender Advocacy Program Summer Academy through which 42 attorneys from across the nation are selected to come to Washington, D.C., for a week-long intensive training program focused on various issues specific to youth defense, hosted by Georgetown Law in partnership with the Gault Center. The Initiative also includes the Ambassadors for Racial Justice Program, a year-long program through which youth defenders complete capstone projects, such as hosting and leading trainings in their jurisdictions related to racial justice or driving legislative reform and campaigns involving juvenile justice stakeholders.

Professor Henning trains youth defenders, prosecutors, judges, and other actors in the juvenile legal system, such as police officers and school officials, on topics ranging from implicit racial bias and trauma in adolescents. She hosts monthly webinars on racial justice advocacy, often in partnership with the Gault Center, which are available on the Clinic’s webpage.

The Clinic’s work has reached internationally, as well: Professor Mlyniec recently served as Co-Director of Georgetown’s Center for Transnational Legal Studies in London, where he taught an international children’s rights course to students from more than a dozen countries. Additionally, he has taught on clinical pedagogy at several international conferences of clinical teachers. Closer to home, his training course for Law Center clinical fellows has spread nationwide, as more than 200 former fellows now teach at law schools across the country.

Professor Mlyniec credits the great support from Georgetown Law’s deans for the success of the clinical programs. From Dean Paul Dean—who served as dean of the Law Center from 1954-1969 and under which the Prettyman Program began—to our current Dean Treanor, every dean has been supportive of clinical education and of bringing practice into the law school, he said. This support has shaped Georgetown Law into one of the nation’s biggest public interest firms and the preeminent center for clinical teaching in the world.

Looking ahead and celebrating 50 years of excellent work

Promoting racial justice will be a continuing theme moving forward in Clinic litigation, trainings, and scholarship. Looking ahead, Professor Henning expects there will be many new opportunities to educate the field and serve as expert witnesses and consultants on juvenile and criminal cases. Professor Ferrer leads a number of policy initiatives that are also a priority for the Clinic. Professor Ferrer engages in advocacy, organizing, and public education in the D.C. area to reduce the number of youth who enter the juvenile legal system and to improve services for those within it. For example, the Initiative has hosted the Every Student Every Day Coalition that aims to reduce school push out and create effective truancy interventions. Along with the racial justice and youth engagement work, other upcoming endeavors include a forthcoming book on clinical pedagogy by Professor Mlyniec.

Another approaching highlight is the Clinic’s 50th anniversary celebration, “Looking Back — Looking Forward,” which will take place in D.C. on June 1, 2024. The reunion will provide an opportunity for alumni to reconnect, reflect on the Clinic’s evolution, and contemplate how the experience affected their careers. Additionally, alumni will have the chance to learn about the new frontiers and policy issues in juvenile justice work and consider whether they might be able to engage in those issues in their own work. The Juvenile Justice Clinic looks forward to reuniting its family to commemorate the half-century of impactful work it has accomplished while serving the youth of D.C. and the nation.