For Deanna Christian, earning a Maida Post-Graduate Public Interest Fellowship that will allow her to advocate for children with disabilities, is a deeply personal accomplishment.
Christian said she was inspired to go to law school after learning to advocate for her son, who was diagnosed with a disability at the age of 5. She said she shared her knowledge about navigating the school system with low-income families in her community who also needed advocacy for their children.
“I did not grow up wanting to be an attorney,” she wrote in her fellowship application essay. “It was the road of adversity that led me to this calling and my choice to pursue a career in public interest law.”
Thanks to the generosity of James and Dr. Sharon Maida, Christian will provide direct representation, impact advocacy and community education around the rights of children with disabilities in charter schools during her year-long fellowship. She was chosen by a committee of professors, alumni and former Maida fellows.
According to Jill Friedman, associate dean for pro bono and public interest, the Maida Public Interest Fellowships Program was established to acknowledge, support and sustain public interest legal work by students and graduates of Rutgers Law School. “Our fellowship students help the most vulnerable people in our society, while the Maidas have advanced an already outstanding program into the very top echelon of public law schools for support of public interest lawyering.”
With the expansion of charter schools throughout the state, significant concerns have arisen regarding their compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA),” Christian said. “There is a critical shortage of free legal representation for low-income parents in New Jersey special education matters overall. During my fellowship year, I will provide free legal representation, community education and policy advocacy for low-income families of children with disabilities who attend charter schools in Newark and the surrounding areas. And, in fact, we are exploring ways to expand some of the work throughout the state.”
For the past 1 ½ years, she worked with the H.E.A.L. Collaborative, a medical-legal-social work partnership with Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences Outpatient Pediatrics Department and Rutgers Law School’s Education and Health Law Clinic. HEAL brings together the disciplines of law, medicine and social work and aims to reduce poverty’s adverse impacts on the health and wellbeing of Newark’s children and their families. Professor Jennifer Rosen Valverde is the legal director of HEAL and will continue to supervise Christian during her fellowship.
“Ms. Christian is both ‘book smart’ and ‘street smart’ and this enables her to see the people and situations behind the legal and social issues, giving her a greater and more holistic understanding of and insight into her clients and the communities in which they live,” said Rosen Valverde. “She is an excellent writer and a passionate oral advocate. Her commitment to social justice and creating positive change for underserved, at-risk communities is unwavering.”
Christian, a top academic performer, served as a summer intern in the chambers of New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, while attending law school part-time. She also was a teaching assistant for Professor Steve Gold’s Administrative Law Class.
Christian grew up in Monmouth County and graduated from Rutgers University in New Brunswick. She is a wife and mother of two boys, and during her first year of law school belonged to the Christian Legal Society. “I believe that all children should be given the resources that they need to be successful and reach their potential. When we invest in the life of a child, we make a lasting impact on society as a whole.”