Throughout the Covid-19 Pandemic, when Rutgers Law School buildings were shuttered, students in the Children’s Justice Clinic in Camden continued to handle cases representing juveniles who had been arrested.
After getting conflict cases from public defenders, and referrals from the community, students would be assigned cases under Professor Sandra Simkins supervision, and would have to handle those cases without being able to meet clients in person, because of Covid restrictions.
The restrictions from the pandemic did not deter the clinic’s willingness to help, Simkins said, “Despite the circumstances, the clinic continued to zealously represent the children who were arrested. That didn’t change.”
She said students worked to represent children, primarily teenagers, who had been arrested on criminal charges, ranging from assault, to drugs, and theft. The teenagers all met state qualifications as low-income clients and many were from the Camden area, where the law school is located.
“Working in the Children's Justice Clinic was a fulfilling and rewarding experience because I had the opportunity to see the direct impact our work had on juveniles and their families. Although there have been many challenges during the pandemic, we were always accessible via phone or zoom to our clients and we worked diligently to ensure we were advocating for each juvenile in and out of the courtroom,” said Jazlyne E. Cabán RLAW ‘22.
Students working with clients had to find creative ways to meet with them and interview them. “It was hard,” Simkins said. "If the clients were in detention, they could only speak with their lawyers through video conferencing. Those who were at home often did not have much privacy to talk with their lawyers."
On their very first day of working in the clinic, the most students were assigned a case to handle and must quickly get up to speed on representing juveniles and the rules of juvenile court. Since juvenile hearings occur more quickly than adult hearings – between 10 days and 2 weeks for children in custody and between 3-4 weeks for children at home, students must prepare quickly for hearings. Simkins praised her students who prepared extensive discover for a case and presented the information in sophisticated visual displays.
Another challenge facing students was representing clients without actually getting to be inside of a courthouse, but handling the case by Zoom. Simkins said students get to know judges and court personnel and absorb information about how the court system works when they are able to be in court in person.
“I can honestly say that the Children's Justice Clinic was the best experience I had in law school,” said Brianne Fredrick RLAW ‘21. “It was extremely tough being completely virtual. I never met Professor Simkins in person, nor was I able to meet my partner. The biggest challenge, however, was not being able to meet with my client in person to discuss their case. Setting up Zoom meetings and finding times to meet proved to be challenging, as I'm sure everyone has faced similar challenges during the new virtual world. Even with those challenges, the clinic was my favorite part about law school and I would not change my experience. I learned valuable lawyering skills, developed interpersonal relationships, and represented a client, which not many law students can say they did. The Children's Justice Clinic, and especially Professor Simkins, helped me prepare for my future career, and I am extremely thankful for the opportunity.”
Simkins said, “What I hope the student walks away with for themselves is confidence. When a situation arises, I want them to know they have the skills and ability to handle it, whether it’s in the courtroom or the boardroom, by the end of the semester I want them to feel like a lawyer.”