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Gwyn Thiessen – Child Advocacy Law Clinic

My two semesters in the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at USF have been the most important of my law school experience. These were the semesters where I went from feeling like a law student to feeling like a lawyer. The first semester I focused on gaining experience dealing with clients, investigating cases, building relationships with my supervisor and colleagues, negotiating with other attorneys, and just learning about the courtroom process. The second semester this fall I was able to build on all that I had learned and worked on much more difficult legal issues, culminating in a trial.

The law requires that the court and all parties try to reunify children with their parents if at all possible. In so many cases, however, it is not possible and the children are in permanent foster care or group homes throughout their childhood. This was the case with a 17-year-old girl who had been in foster care for many years. Her mother has refused to house her for the past number of years and she had been bouncing around from group home to group home, unable to establish a permanent place for herself. She expressed many times her desire to live with a “real” foster family, but she had too many problems to be cared for by a regular foster family. She is a vivacious, funny girl, but one with many problems, who needed a higher level of care than could be offered by a foster family.

I worked on her case for the past year, meeting her my very first day in the clinic. During the course of the past year, she has escaped from her group home several times, been involved with a gang, been arrested and sent to juvenile hall, placed in a new group home, but eventually ending up AWOL. I never for a minute during this time entertained any hope that she might be reunified with her mother. All parties agreed that the best plan for her would be to find a group home that could be successful and permanent, but that never seemed to happen.

Suddenly, about a month ago, her mother agreed to take her back. This was such an unexpected outcome that we didn’t believe it at first. I called her mother myself and muscled together enough Spanish to be able to confirm that it was true. She is now at home with her mother for the first time in years, and is living proof that the law favoring reunification with parents is sound. She is calm for the first time since I met her, and is thinking about her future, and so grateful to be with her mother.

Seeing this very unexpected, positive conclusion in a case that seemed doomed was inspirational. My sometimes cynical views about the long-term prospects for family or permanency that teenagers in the system often seem to face were washed away with the amazing recovery of the bond between this mother and daughter. The importance to this child of being accepted by a mother who had previously rejected her was a moving reminder of what is really important in life. Although there were other cases I worked on where my work made more of a difference to the outcome of the case, being able to observe this happy conclusion to a long and tragic story was one of the most gratifying.





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