Innovative clinic sets bar for better representation of jailed parents

May 20, 2016

The idea behind helping incarcerated parents is simple but powerful: A prison sentence is punishment enough. Moms and dads shouldn't face the additional heartache of losing access to their children.

With that mission in mind and a $450,000 grant in hand, the Washington Defender Association launched the Incarcerated Parents Project in 2014. The project included the Incarcerated Parents Advocacy Clinic, a two-year, real-life lawyering class at Seattle University School of Law.

Over the course of two years — or four semesters — clinic students directly represented 10 clients, signed on as amicus curiae in four cases in front of the Washington Supreme Court, visited women's prisons monthly to deliver "know your rights" presentations, and provided sample briefs to the Washington Defender Association's clearinghouse of helpful documents that practicing attorneys can use in dependency hearings. 

As the clinic comes to an end, students reflected on what they learned and how their experience can help attorneys in the future.

"It was the first time in law school that I felt really useful," said Rachel Broderick '16. "We dedicated a lot of time to this clinic, but it was worth it."

Devon KnowlesIncarcerated parents are more than twice as likely as other parents to lose their children. Visiting Professor Devon Knowles said that keeping families intact helps prevent recidivism, improves family stability, and is better for children's emotional health.

"The students have written briefs and they've presented oral arguments in court, but what's been especially valuable is they've learned how to work with people in crisis and how to do that empathetically," Knowles said. "They've gotten people housing. They've secured in-patient treatment for people who need it. They've become incredible advocates."

For clients like Kateri Henderson, it was the kind of support she needed to become a better mother. "I've been clean and sober for 15 months now," she said. "The law students believed in me even when I had my downfalls. I've never had that type of support before."

Henderson, who lost custody of five other children when she was incarcerated, was able to keep her infant daughter with the help of students in the clinic. And without her daughter, Henderson said, she probably would have lost all hope.

"I prayed really hard for help and they were the answer to my prayers," she said.

Lillian Hewko, an attorney who manages the Incarcerated Parents Project at the Washington Defender Association, said the clinic has been an integral part of the project in providing a more holistic approach to the complexities that parental incarceration brings to a child welfare case.

"Many judges, social workers, and even attorneys see incarceration as dead time, where parents cannot actively work toward reunification with their children," she said. "But from the many families who have fought the system to maintain ties with their children, we know the relationship between children of the incarcerated and their parents is one that should be protected."

Shortly after it started, Seattle U Law's Incarcerated Parents Advocacy Clinic was named by The National Jurist as one of the most innovative law clinics in the country.

"The clinic opened my eyes to social justice issues more than any other class I took," said student Jackie McCormick '16. "It's easy to sit in our classrooms and talk about racism and social justice, but visiting clients in prison and talking with them about their children is a totally different experience, and one for which I am very grateful."

In one case before the Court of Appeals, the students successfully argued that incarcerated parents have the right to counsel of their choice in dependency hearings, setting an important legal precedent. 

"I really think it helped prepare me for the 'real world' of practicing law," McCormick said. "Court deadlines don't care about Thanksgiving break, or your other classes, or finals. For your client, you are their voice and their only access to the court system. It was a truly great experience."