By Olivia Klein
The Skadden Fellowship, which launched in 1988, offers young lawyers two-year fellowships to pursue public interest law on a full-time basis. The Skadden Foundation aims to expand the legal services available to economically disadvantaged communities by supporting newly graduated lawyers to pursue work they are passionate about, and to help them establish long term public interest careers. This year’s Harvard Law School student awardees actively engaged in the clinical program during their law school careers.
We caught up with this year’s fellows, Ava Cilia and Kaitlynn Milvert, to hear more about their fellowships and how their clinical experiences paved the way for their careers in public interest law.
Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs (OCP): What drew you to apply for the Skadden Fellowship?
Ava Cilia (AC): I was interested in applying to the Skadden Fellowship for many reasons, but what initially drew me to it was how it provides a unique opportunity to design your ideal job. The Fellowship allows you to decide how you want to use your legal education to make the most impact. It feels very exciting, and definitely intimidating, to know that I will have ownership of my project. I recognize how rare this kind of ownership is for most entry-level attorneys.
Kaitlynn Milvert (KM): When I learned about the fellowship, I saw it as an incredible opportunity to pursue work in the communities that I came to law school with the goal of serving.
OCP: Can you describe the project you’ll be working on during your fellowship? What inspired you to pursue this work?
AC: My project, the Working Families Justice Project, will ensure that New Yorkers are not denied employment based on unproven accusations of child maltreatment or findings that are unrelated to their work. In addition to representing individuals challenging their inclusion on the State Central Registry of Child Abuse and Neglect (SCR), I will also train attorneys, pro bono lawyers, and law school students in how to advocate for clients in these SCR hearings. Lastly, I will work with a coalition of impacted parents to support legislative advocacy, public education, and community organizing efforts that challenge the family regulation system and its harmful impacts on low-income Black and Brown New Yorkers.
My project was inspired by my experiences working with children and parents involved in the family regulation system before and during law school. I first began thinking critically about the system while at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Jackson, Mississippi. A significant portion of my responsibilities involved visiting and interviewing children incarcerated in prisons throughout the state in support of federal litigation challenging conditions of confinement. Through the relationships I built with our clients, I learned how the family regulation system had torn many of our client’s families apart without ever providing their parents with the support or resources they needed, making our clients’ contact with the legal system seem almost inevitable.
This realization, along with my desire to learn more about how family court works, led me to pursue an internship with the Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Practice in Brooklyn, New York after my 1L year. During that summer, I saw how judges and Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) staff impose restrictions and requirements on parents, the majority of whom are Black, Latine, and/or low-income, that subject families to intrusive state monitoring of the most intimate details of their lives. The court ignored the underlying and systemic reasons why families are vulnerable to contact with child protective services. I was shocked by how judges, ACS workers, and the children’s attorneys often assumed that the interests of the children were opposed to those of their parents, despite the child’s desire to remain with their family. Just like the young people I got to know in Mississippi, the clients I worked with in Brooklyn did not want to be taken from their homes. Instead, they wanted their parents and caregivers to receive the support and resources they needed to lead healthy lives and build stable homes.
It seemed obvious to me that to ensure the safety and welfare of children, the court needed to support and address the needs of their parents and caregivers. However, this perspective was largely missing from family court proceedings.
KM: I’ll be working with adults with disabilities in Illinois on guardianship-related issues. My project will focus on representing individuals under guardianship in changing or ending their guardianship in favor of less restrictive alternatives. I’ll also work on building resources to support those who might otherwise face guardianship in setting up less restrictive options for decision-making supports.
My interest in and commitment to this work grows out of my experiences growing up in the disability community and working in that space prior to law school. Guardianship was one of many issues that friends, mentors, clients, community members faced. Of particular concern is the reality that folks can be under guardianship for decades. While individuals’ life circumstances change over time, it takes going to court and getting an order from a judge to change or end a guardianship—a high barrier at best. My project aims to lower these barriers that adults under guardianship face in changing or ending their guardianships and to reduce the use of unnecessary and overbroad guardianships.
OCP: Ava, what are some of the challenges facing individuals with a wrongful inclusion on the New York State Central Registry of Child Abuse and Neglect (SCR), and how will your work address them?
AC: In New York state, individuals are placed on the State Central Registry of Child Abuse and Maltreatment (SCR), a registry that brands them as child abusers and significantly limits their employment prospects, based on limited evidence provided by ACS. The majority of the reports in the SCR are based on allegations of neglect related to poverty. Despite the dire and long-lasting consequences of inclusion on the SCR, most cases have never been reviewed by a judge to determine whether the accusations are supported by evidence that warrants drastically limiting a person’s employability.
Each year in New York City, there are between 45-65,000 reports of child maltreatment called into the SCR. Approximately 40% of these cases are “indicated,” meaning that a caseworker has found “some credible evidence” of maltreatment, an extremely low standard of proof. Estimates place the number of indicated reports in the millions. These findings can exclude people from a wide range of employment opportunities in fields such as education, health care, security, and transportation. Additionally, a finding prevents an individual from serving as a foster or adoptive parent.
Not all New Yorkers are impacted the same — a Black child is roughly 6 times more likely than a white child to be named in an initial maltreatment report, and Black parents are 2.6 times more likely to have an indicated report than white parents. While Black, Brown, and low-income people have a higher risk of being placed on the SCR, they are also at a higher risk of having their employment opportunities limited by it; the same employers who are required to check the SCR disproportionately employ Black, Brown, and/or low-income people. Thus, the SCR, a mechanism designed with the intention of protecting young people, often undermines the welfare of low-income children of color by threatening the economic security of their parents.
The only way to challenge one’s inclusion on the SCR is to request administrative review. As the result of recent reforms and marijuana legalization, individuals can now request a “relevancy hearing” to argue that the finding of neglect is not relevant to employment or seal their records based on marijuana use or purchase. However, parents do not have a right to counsel in these proceedings. Most are not aware of their right to request these hearings, let alone how to navigate the complicated process, obtain evidence, or represent themselves.
Through direct representation, community education, and systemic advocacy, my fellowship will address the gap in legal services available to parents and ensure that they are not denied employment based on unproven accusations of child maltreatment, conditions of poverty, or findings that are unrelated to their work.
OCP: Kaitlynn, what are some of the challenges facing adults with disabilities in Illinois, and how will your work address them?
KM: Illinois is a state that has lagged behind in expanding access to community-based supports and services for people with disabilities. For example, the state still has many institutions, and the limited access to community-based supports risks pushing adults with disabilities into these kinds of restrictive settings.
I see the project’s focus on guardianship as fitting into my host organization’s broader, ongoing work on reducing restrictions on the choices available to adults with disabilities. The project will address situations where guardianship stands a barrier to, for example, moving out of an institution, pursuing a job, or maintaining relationships with friends and family.
OCP: Ava, tell us about your clinical experiences with the Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) and the Institute to End Mass Incarceration Clinic (IEMI); why were you interested in joining these clinics at HLS? What were your biggest takeaways from these learning experiences?
AC: My clinical experiences with FLPC and IEMI were some of the highlights of my time at HLS. I participated in FLPC for all of my 2L year. Up until that point, most of my experience had been in direct legal services and civil rights litigation, so I was eager to learn more about policy and administrative advocacy. I was also drawn to FLPC because of the issue areas the clinic’s work covers, and it seemed like an opportunity to expand my own knowledge to other social and environmental justice issues. FLPC definitely provided me with all of that and more. The mentorship that the director and clinical professor give to their students is simply unparalleled, and I feel so grateful to have been able to work with them.
I was drawn to IEMI based on its ethos and approach to lawyering, as well as its focus on building power within communities targeted for criminal prosecution. It was extremely exciting to be a part of the first round of students in the clinic ever, and I think that made us feel like we were really influencing how the clinic works. IEMI offered me the really unique experience to work closely with other students to imagine innovative decarceral strategies. I am so appreciative of the directors of the clinic, who pushed me to challenge my own thinking about the role of public defenders and client-centered advocacy in the broader movement to end mass incarceration. I am incredibly excited to see how the Institute’s work evolves and grows.
OCP: Kaitlynn, tell us about your clinical experiences with the Education Law Clinic, Health Law and Policy Clinic, and Employment Law Clinic; why were you interested in participating in this variety of clinics at HLS? What were your biggest takeaways from these learning experiences?
KM: Clients rarely, if ever, face one legal issue in isolation. This reality was part of my interest in participating in this variety of clinics, and I’ve valued the opportunities I’ve had through my clinical work to gain insight both into several different substantive areas of law and into a range of different strategies for advocacy—whether providing direct representation in the Education Law Clinic, working on impact litigation through the Health Law and Policy Clinic, or exploring a range of litigation strategies in my work through the Employment Law Clinic.
OCP: Are there any projects you worked on in any of these clinics that stick out as particularly significant in shaping how you think about public service legal work?
KM: In the Education Law Clinic last year, I worked closely with a client in advocating for her child to receive appropriate supports in school. Through that process, I also was able to build relationships with other adults in that student’s life outside of school, including a team of wraparound service providers. I saw how much of a difference it can make to have that broader team of people at the table to address a student’s needs in a more holistic way.
That type of holistic approach is one that I hope to bring to my future work in direct client representation, including through my fellowship project. I think it’s especially vital to enable this kind of relationship-building to make sure that legal advocacy is actively recognizing and supporting clients’ nonlegal needs as well.
OCP: Kaitlynn, you’ve been a member of the Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP) for all of your years at HLS; what has that SPO experience been like?
KM: TAP has been a wonderful community of other students who care deeply about housing justice. My work with TAP gave me some of my earliest experiences working directly with clients on legal issues, and I’ve really valued the opportunity to work with our clients over these past three years.
OCP: Did your clinical experiences impact your desire to pursue public interest work after graduation? Did they influence the shaping of your Skadden Fellowship project?
AC: Both clinics equipped me with the skills to think critically about the role of lawyers in social justice movements, and have shown me how lawyering is just one of many tools available to those committed to bringing about change. This critical approach is something that definitely shaped my fellowship proposal, and is what led me to pursue a project that takes an integrated advocacy approach.
When designing my proposal, it was also really important to me that I create a project that would be responsive to the needs of the individuals most impacted by the SCR and that would seek to support the organizing that is already being done by parent advocates. This sentiment was definitely born out of my experience in IEMI.
KM: I came to law school knowing already that I wanted to pursue work in the communities that I grew up in and to work on addressing the limited access to meaningful legal services that I’d seen in my work before law school. But my clinical work over the last couple of years has significantly shaped how I think about that work and the available strategies for effective advocacy. Many of the questions that were front of mind in developing my fellowship proposal grew out of and were informed by my prior clinical work: What are the possibilities and limitations of a given strategy? What nonlegal options for advocacy might exist? What role, if any, should lawyers play in addressing the issues the project seeks to address?
OCP: What advice would you give to students considering a career in public interest after graduation?
AC: My advice to students considering a public interest career would be to pursue as many varied experiences as possible. Many public interest students feel a pressure to commit to one issue area or type of advocacy while they are in law school. I think that this can lead folks to miss out on some really interesting opportunities to learn new skills or expand their areas of expertise. Even though I knew I was interested in public defense work and I will ultimately be working at a public defender’s office, I am really grateful that I sought out clinical opportunities in areas beyond that. I think that these experiences have helped me approach legal problems creatively and with a wide variety of tools. They have also helped me figure out exactly what I am interested in.
Additionally, I would suggest seeking out as many experiential learning opportunities as possible. I have definitely learned the most in law school from the clinics, internships, and student practice organizations (shout out Harvard Defenders!) that I have participated in.
KM: I’d emphasize the importance of spending time learning from, listening to, and getting to know the communities that you hope to work with. It’s really important that public interest work—whether through a fellowship project or otherwise—be responsive and accountable to the needs of clients and their communities.
Congratulations to Ava and Kaitlynn, our 2022 Skadden Fellows!