The Barton Center

Teen clients. Young lawyers. An education in advocacy.
Photography by Annaliese Kaylor

Serving challenging clients, Barton Center staff operate with a philosophy that we are all better than the decisions we made at age 14.

The Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic, part of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center, serves a challenging population: at-risk youth, a population of children under the age of 17 who have been referred to the juvenile justice system, many of whom are also neglected or abused within their homes and communities. The Metro Atlanta youth who come to the Barton Center for representation in the juvenile justice system are all alleged to have violated a state criminal law. These violations range from minor trespass and making threats over social media to theft and possession of drugs or weapons.

We’re all better than the decisions we made when we were 14 years old,” says Professor Melissa Carter, executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center. Many of these children are engaging in “normative teenage behavior for youth of all races,” Professor Randee Waldman, director of the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic, says, but only some find their transgressions escalated to court.

At the Barton Center, children are treated holistically, receiving legal services in their juvenile court proceedings; represented at their schools’ special education and disciplinary hearings; and provided with resources enabling them to gain access to mental health and housing services, among other resources the state provides.

THE BARTON CENTER KEEPS its young clients’ circumstances confidential, but to understand a typical case, consider this hypothetical scenario:

Joseph is being raised within the foster system, though his maternal grandmother has contact with him and sees him occasionally. He has a special education teacher for a few subjects at school but has trouble paying attention in class because he’s often tired from working evenings at a part-time job. One night, Joseph is commuting home after work on MARTA and encounters a few friends when he disembarks his train. Their casual greeting stretches into a longer, bigger, louder conversation as other classmates join them. Joseph misjudges how to conduct himself when an officer approaches the group with a few questions. What is he doing? How long has he been there? What’s in his backpack? John, like most teenagers, does not know how he’s expected to cooperate or what he’s obligated to answer. Before the interaction ends, Joseph is charged with loitering and obstruction of a law enforcement officer.

Imagine dozens of Josephs, unaware of their rights and uncertain how to defend themselves against charges—whether innocent or guilty of the accusation. Helping children navigate the system is not simply an act of benevolence; rather, it is an essential, rehabilitative service owed to children by the state. And there is a remarkable need for this service in metro Atlanta.

The Barton Child Law and Policy Center, established in 2000, exists as a result of a gift made after a high-profile Atlanta child fatality case. The child’s death, as Carter describes it, “put Georgia on the cover of TIME magazine and Oprah’s couch, and became the catalyst for demanding greater system openness.” Given that Georgia’s child welfare systems are tax-payer-funded, the public has a “need to understand how those systems are operating and the outcomes the systems are achieving,” Carter says. The Barton Center’s aim is to intervene correctively to promote children’s rights in the juvenile court system and to support at-risk youth through a three-pronged clinic approach. On a fundamental level, the Barton Center’s clinics comprise a complete portfolio of protections for children: preventive research and legislative advocacy; legal advocacy and representation; and post-conviction relief.

Carter, who directs the Barton Center, also oversees the Public Policy and Legislative Advocacy Clinic. Within this clinic, Carter, who has devoted time to foster care and child advocacy scholarship, including topics such as medical oversight for children in the system, works with Emory Law students to research contemporary children’s issues to provide fact sheets, talking points, and other resources for children’s advocates and lawyers, or to partners involved in strategizing for legislative changes. “We conduct research, write op-eds, and attend a lot of meetings as thought partners,” Carter says. “The nature of the work is to be present for conversations and use our research and data to develop policies and guide decisions of those in positions of authority.”

Barton Center volunteers

Barton Center volunteers: Bria Stephens 19L, Josh Pender 19L, Pranav Lokin 20L

CARTER MAKES A SIMPLE but significant point: in the justice system, children are treated differently from adults because children are different from adults. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the juvenile justice system aims to be corrective rather than punitive. Within the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic, established in 2006 and directed by Waldman, Emory Law students provide legal representation to children accused of violating Georgia criminal law. “Professor Waldman makes sure that children are understood as full people with complex backgrounds and strengths,” Carter says. Every child in the system has a story, and Waldman makes sure that story is represented in court. “These are kids who’ve done something we’ve disapproved of,” Waldman says. They’re not bad kids—but some of them do require “interven[tion] to correct the path.”

Conveying the children’s perspectives and circumstances is an essential part of child advocacy. Carter points out, “Someone standing accused before the court is more willing to accept the outcome if they feel like they’ve been heard and understood correctly.” Waldman works with the students in her clinic to ensure that children’s stories are heard start to finish—and with appropriate context—in a way that represents what the child truly believes has taken place. Accordingly, youth are “more compliant with service interventions and in building self-reflection about what they’ve been accused of doing,” Carter says. “They accept the social and legal norms around them and conform their behavior in a pro-social way.”

Waldman’s oversight of the clinic underscores her scholarship; she has composed guides for juvenile defenders and written about children being searched and interrogated at school and by police. She conducts the clinic like a public defender’s office, admitting 8 to 10 law students each semester to represent DeKalb County youth (most of whom are 15 or 16 years old, though Waldman has had a client as young as 11). The Student Practice Act allows students to practice as lawyers under Waldman’s supervision. “They work in pairs, doing everything a public defender does,” Waldman explains. “They can draft motions, photograph crime scenes, interview witnesses, and do hearings and trials.” Most cases move quickly, allowing students to carry about three per semester—and judges accommodate the Emory calendar as much as possible. Students can also represent youth at school hearings, because, as Waldman explains, schools frequently discipline students for the same infraction. “Often, the proper measures to channel a child’s behavior can reduce delinquency,” Waldman says, and this is why Emory Law students are involved in Manifestation Determination Reviews and Individualized Education Programs with children’s teachers and guardians.

Most cases that reach the clinic are able to be resolved without leaving a criminal record for the client. There is an important distinction between reaching resolution and winning, Waldman notes. In the juvenile justice system, favorable outcomes are the desire, Waldman says. “It’s rare for cases to even go to trial. Either something happens in preparation for the case that will cause it to be dismissed or for the youth to be understood in his or her innoence, or we will reach an agreement with the state as to an appropriate resolution of the case given all of the facts and circumstances.”

In those rare instances where cases have gone to trial and youth have been sentenced, the Barton Center is prepared to assist after conviction. The Appeal for Youth Clinic was added in 2011, Carter explains, so that law students could “represent individual clients to advocate for post-conviction relief through the appellate process.” Clients are youth serving long prison sentences because of the seriousness of offenses they committed when they were under the age of 17. Students working at this clinic seek “new pathways of relief for these now-adult offenders,” Carter says. Perhaps sentences can be amended, or, at the policy level, laws can be changed to better serve youth.

Josh Pender 20L
THE BARTON CENTER ACCEPTS about 60 students per year and consistently has more interest and demand than it has capacity to enroll, Carter says. Students work very closely with faculty. Ashley Cleaves 20L works in Carter’s Public Policy and Legislative Advocacy clinic. “We work on a macro, systemic level,” she says. Her clinic work connects her to stakeholders in the community rather than children and their specific cases. She gives the example of her team’s work on kinship care issues.

Children benefit more from living with a relative than from living in foster care, Cleaves says, “and only 30 percent of Georgia children in foster care are with their relatives. We researched why and wrote a white paper laying out benefits of kinship care, as well as a resource guide that provides information on public benefits available to kinship caregivers throughout Georgia. We hope this information goes out to families that need it. There’s not enough financial support for them to navigate the system themselves.” She knows that the clinic’s research is a launching pad for advocacy, even if she doesn’t have direct contact with families. Cleaves has known since she entered law school that she wants to be in child law and chose Emory based on the opportunity to work at the Barton Center. “I’m a hands-on learner, and I learn so much more from activity in a clinic than from reading case books.”

At the Juvenile Defender Clinic, Evvie Walker 19L is in her second semester with the Barton Center. She came to Emory Law because she’s passionate about serving communities in the South, and her work with Waldman has built her confidence about seeking a career as a public defender. “I was never sure I was good enough to have someone’s life in my hands— which is what you do as a public defender,” she says. Within the clinic, she has been able to get a very real sense of what the job entails, as well as dig deeper into child advocacy. Walker explains, “Clients get helped in a way they’re not helped in a public defender’s office outside the system, with us providing help on school issues, making sure they complete court requirements and generally serving as mentors to our client.”

At the Barton Center, students also help clients whenever they come back into the system. “We hope they don’t,” Walker says, “but you never know with juveniles.” Even clients who age out of the juvenile system continue to receive support from the center. She explains, “We can’t directly represent you, but we can give you advice, recommendations about who you can call to help you, and stay involved in the representation just to show our support.”

The students who work at the Barton Center acquire the skills one would expect of a clinic’s experiential learning environment. Waldman uses the clinic as an opportunity to teach lawyers how to practice effectively: how to look at a file, understand the case beginning to end, and think critically about strategy. Beyond these essential skills, they also do very real work for the city of Atlanta and the surrounding metro area. “It’s not just about forming identities of young lawyers and making them advocates for change in society and the legal system—but also for the impact itself,” Carter says. The Barton Center becomes the voice for a population that doesn’t have one, she explains, and its impact is felt in the classroom, the courtroom, and the capitol building.

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