Law professor co-founded U of M Law School Juvenile Justice Clinic

by Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Before entering law school, Frank Vandervort worked at a residential facility for emotionally impaired children. Most had been physically or sexually abused, and a few were involved in child protection proceedings. Since he was interested in legal issues, Vandervort would sometimes take the children to their court hearings.

“What I quickly learned is that delinquent children are, mostly, neglected and abused children we’ve been unable to help,” he says. “The intersection of these two phenomena—child maltreatment and subsequent violent behavior—has been a fascination throughout my career.”

A clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, in 2009 Vandervort co-founded the Juvenile Justice Clinic with Professor Kimberly Thomas. He routinely hears from students that their work in the clinic is and was their best experience in law school.

“The opportunity to handle cases under the close supervision of experienced clinical professors is invaluable to their professional development,” he says. “The clinic is really their first opportunity to begin to apply all their classroom learning to real clients. They don’t just talk about hearsay, they see it in real cases in real courtrooms; they don’t just talk about abstract notions of due process of law, they wrestle with what it means on the ground and see how it impacts real people’s lives.”

While students benefit from the experience their clients in return get hard-working, dedicated, and compassionate lawyers handling their cases.

“All of the cases we work on involve indigent clients and our students – because they are students and because we have more resources than the typical appointed attorney – are able to spend much more time and effort on an individual case,” Vandervort says. “So, clients get a much higher quality of advocacy then they would otherwise get.”

But students don’t always get the respect a fully licensed lawyer would receive.

“Other lawyers will sometimes dismiss them as unserious,” Vandervort says. “But I think those lawyers are surprised when they actually must advocate against our students – they’re smart and well-prepared.”

In a difficult adoption case several years ago, an opposing attorney apparently found it “cute” that U-M students would be helping to represent the child.

“After my students soundly trounced that lawyer in the courtroom by knowing both the law and the facts of the case better that he did, and by presenting them in a compelling way to the judge, the lawyer came to one of my students and offered her a job at his firm,” Vandervort says. “That was satisfying, to say the least.”

His law students are overwhelmingly white, from middle and upper middle class homes, and have, for the most part, had every educational privilege, he says.

“Their life experiences are very different from our clients who tend to be persons of color, are by definition poor, and have had few if any advantages in life. Sometimes students have to learn to check their own biases to prevent them from creeping in to their decision-making.”

As for his own legal path, Vandervort set his sights on the law as early as third grade in Grawn, a very small town outside Traverse City.

“There are no lawyers in my family, so it was something of an unusual choice,” he says. “My family had very little money and we were often in precarious financial circumstances and experienced the instability that comes along with being financially strapped. I think a career in law seemed very stable to me, and it has been.”

Interested in First Amendment issues, Vandervort thought he might eventually work in that area of the law. In his undergrad studies at Michigan State University, he took a sociology course in juvenile justice and became fascinated with what causes children to become aggressive and violent.

“Eventually, I settled on criminal justice as my major and developed an interest in the legal issues children face,” he says. He went on to earn his law degree from Wayne State University School of Law.

His focus on interdisciplinary work has led to Vandervort spending the past 15 years as a legal consultant to the Family Assessment Clinic at the U-M School of Social Work. Headed by Dr. Kathleen Coulborn Faller, a leading expert on child sexual abuse, the teaching clinic assesses cases in which the children are in the child welfare system or in which the family is involved in divorce or child custody proceedings.

“The FAC is to the School of Social Work what the law school clinics are to the law school – a training ground for students interested in this work, a place where students get the best training possible under the close supervision of knowledgeable and experienced social worker,”

Vandervort says. “The FAC uses an interdisciplinary model to comprehensively assess these very difficult cases in which child abuse – very often sexual abuse – is suspected or has been confirmed.”

His fascination with the harm done to children through abuse and neglect has convinced Vandervort that lawyers and the law alone have no hope of really helping these children.
“Lawyers working in these areas of the law must strive to understand the interdisciplinary issues that underlie every child protection or juvenile justice case,” he says.

Over the years, it became apparent that doing good work on single cases was necessary but not sufficient to meet the needs of children entering the child welfare and juvenile justice systems: systemic reform was needed. When Dr. Jim Henry, a professor in the School of Social Work at Western Michigan University, asked Vandervort to work with him on the Trauma Informed Child Welfare Systems project, he jumped at the chance.

“Jim is a passionate advocate for abused and neglected children, and a master at his craft of assessing children and their needs. Working with him on projects aimed at pressing our public systems to understand children’s development, the impact of their traumatic experiences on their development, and the physical and emotional needs for care and treatment that result from these experiences was an unparalleled opportunity,” Vandervort says. “The project has received several federal grants over the past three or four years. Over time, I believe, we have begun to have a real impact on how the legal system understands abused, neglected, and delinquent children and how it responds to their needs. Of course, we still have much work to do.”

Vandervort’s work with the National Quality Improvement Center for the Representation of Children in the Child Welfare System has been the result of similar motivation.

“The QIC is an effort to understand the impact lawyers have on children’s well-being when they enter the child welfare system and to improve the quality of legal practice provided to children,” he says.

Vandervort, who in 2010 was elected to the board of directors of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, is also on the advisory committee for the revision of the Michigan Child Protection Proceeding Benchbook and a member of the advisory committee for the revision of the Michigan Juvenile Justice Benchbook.

“I’ve been on several advisory committees for bench books over the years,” he says. “My efforts have been aimed at trying to develop resources so that lawyers and judges handling children’s cases have tools to assist them in knowing the law so that they can make the best possible decision for the child and the family.”

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