By Diane Bernabei, J.D. 24
Interning at the Boston Juvenile Court (BJC) through the Child Advocacy Clinic afforded me a unique opportunity to experience trial advocacy and learn how judges approach difficult decisions. Interns working with the BJC bench are expected to observe court proceedings, research novel legal issues, and assist judges and their clerks in legal writing. In addition to getting a good grasp on the ins and outs of the juvenile legal system, prospective students might additionally benefit from this placement by thinking of it as a hands-on opportunity to learn more about what a clerkship might look like and if pursuing one is right for them. Above all, students will gain first-hand insights into the difficulty in balancing the four parts of the court’s mission: “(1) protect children from abuse and neglect, (2) to strengthen families, (3) to rehabilitate juveniles, and (4) to protect the public from delinquent and criminal behavior.”[i]
The Boston Juvenile Court is a trial court that hears Care and Protection (C&P), and delinquency cases for certain precincts in Boston. The court relies on various component parts to function including its administrative clerks, probation officers, bailiffs and the court clinic which performs court-ordered parenting and mental health evaluations. Throughout their internship, students can expect to learn about how each gear in this machine helps the next turn. Interns are paired directly with one of the six judges who sit on the juvenile court bench and this judge acts as their supervisor and mentor throughout the semester, gauging their interest and experience, and assigning them tasks that match their level of knowledge of the juvenile system. Having come into this role with no previous trial or juvenile advocacy experience, I felt my supervisor was able to tailor the experience well to help me ascend a steep learning curve through meaningful experiences.
The judge I interned for predominantly heard C&P cases but occasionally presided over delinquency cases too. These proceedings can differ in nature and doctrine. C&P hearings are not criminal, but a party’s parental rights are at stake. Parties normally include the Department of Children and Families (DCF), the mother and/or father, and the child, all of whom are entitled to counsel if they are indigent. The subject child normally does not appear in court. Because of all the parties involved in C&P cases, these proceedings can become quite complex, and the court must deploy extra resources to keep track of their moving parts. In delinquency cases, the Commonwealth can bring criminal charges against children. If the charge is grave enough and the child is between the ages of 14 and 18, they may be tried as a youthful offender which means they could be subject to an adult sentence. I spent about most of my time observing these 2 types of proceedings and the about a third of my time researching and writing to support my supervisor in drafting an opinion describing relevant facts and explaining how the trial judge applied the law.
This internship has given me many reasons to be hopeful about the juvenile system’s future. The BJC is staffed by people who care deeply about helping children and talented judges who place children at the center of their decisions. However, in this internship, students will also be exposed to how these system successes struggle to persevere in the headwinds of emerging issues in our juvenile community. Especially on the other end of a pandemic-induced lockdown, youth in our community are more likely to experience chronic stress caused by neglect or abuse that the pandemic made hard to spot. Consequently, children with untreated trauma are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior and appear in court as a defendant in a delinquency hearing. In fact, almost 75% of children in the juvenile system have experienced some degree of trauma. [ii] As trauma gets harder to spot and the system works to overcome a backlog of C&P cases, the court is in a unique position to advocate for more resources to help affected children rehabilitate and families get the support they need to break the trauma cycle. As an intern in the BJC, students will see how the court is uniquely positioned to break this trauma cycle in addition to the resource-based restraints it must overcome.
The Child Advocacy Clinic allowed me to not only synthesize stories from my peers to build a broader understanding of the juvenile legal system, but also to discover and apply new legal skills through in-court observation and writing under the direct supervision of a judge. My goals – to practice legal writing, learn about the juvenile legal field, and expand my professional network within it – are all more than met. I highly recommend this placement for students who want more exposure to trial advocacy or an experience working directly under a judge on juvenile issues.
On the other end of 192+ hours – hours spent watching body-camera arrests submitted as evidence, parents cry as they regain custody of a child, attorneys keep their composure as their client entertains a delusion on the stand, a father be escorted back into holding after stipulating to a loss of his parental rights, a young girl smile when she hears a judge cut her sentence short – I can say that the court has taught me much more than what I set out to learn. In endeavoring to achieve my goals and through in-class learning from peers, I’ve gained a wealth of knowledge about my own strengths and weaknesses as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the court and of juvenile justice system as a whole.
[i] Boston Juvenile Court Mission Statement: https://www.mass.gov/orgs/juvenile-court#:~:text=The%20Juvenile%20Court’s%20mission%20is,from%20delinquent%20and%20criminal%20behavior.
[ii] Jennifer Shore, The Kids Are Not Alright: How Trauma Affects Development, FocusforHealth.org (April 2, 2019). https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/aug/03/children-who-suffer-violence-or-trauma-age-faster-study-finds?CMP=oth_b-aplnews_d-1 (last visited Dec., 1, 2022). Since the pandemic children have been spending record amounts of time on technology increasing their exposure to traumatic events with coverage of George Floyd’s death, especially impacting black youth during the pandemic. See Inside the Adolescent Mental Health Crisis, The New York Times, The Daily. (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/inside-the-adolescent-mental-health-crisis/id1200361736?i=1000577780551) (last visited Sept. 2022).