Dan McElroy was fresh out of undergrad at Notre Dame when he became a math teacher at John Bartram High School in Philadelphia.
"Pretty quickly into my teaching career...I realized that I loved kids. I loved working with kids," McElroy says.
For two years, McElroy bonded with his students, primarily from underserved neighborhoods in the city. And they trusted him. So much so, that they often came to him with advice concerning brushes with the law. McElroy became a stand-in parent, and lawyer, even before his time at the Children and Family Justice Center.
McElroy was a firsthand witness to the impact of the juvenile justice system on youth. "I saw how it effected them personally, which was rough. But just in general, any student that I had that had been through he system was...just so behind academically, and having something on your record, the way that it effects your life, it kind of came into focus for me," he says.
His next stop was law school. After learning about the powerful, justice-oriented work of the Bluhm Legal Clinic's centers, he decided that Northwestern's law program was the best fit. McElroy met with Julie Biehl, director of CFJC, and was swayed. This would be the perfect transition into working with law and staying close to the youth advocacy that he loved.
McElroy describes Julie Biehl, and Ali Flaum, legal director at CFJC, as two of the biggest mentors he's ever had, and that working under their tutelage was the greatest gift of his academic career.
Having worked at CFJC for two years, graduating in 2011, McElroy explains that, "They were incredible in showing me how to be a good lawyer...but, also just sort of opening my eyes to what you can do with a law degree and the types of jobs that are out there. You can be passionate with a law degree, be passionate with clients."
At CFJC, McElroy describes the challenging and confidence-inspiring work he was able to perform with the center. Unlike most entry-level legal positions, he was already front and center in the courtroom making arguments and practicing public speaking.
But beyond the nuts and bolts of litigation and strategy, McElroy says that he gained an inspiring outlook on his profession.
This "sort of idealistic notion that you have coming into law school, you don't have to give that up. It's not always easy, especially with tuition...but it can happen. If not right away, but eventually, you can have those kinds of jobs and be fulfilled," he says, referring to CFJC attorneys.
Today, Dan is a judicial law clerk in the Northern District of Illinois. He has high hopes for his ability to impact the juvenile justice system, and aims to stay involved.
"I think that our criminal laws and criminal enforcement on under-resourced populations has an incredibly deleterious effect. And if I can at all help to reverse that, I think it would go a long way to changing the nature of poverty in America in general."
Washington, JD' 10, worked with the Children and Family Justice Center for one year during his undergraduate career. He currently works a a public defender at the Committee for Public Services in Boston. He shares his thoughts on working with CFJC in our video.
Disproportionate Minority Contact Coordinator
Karima Douglas describes the neighborhood where she grew up as “less-than-stellar”. She is from a single parent household in Carroll Gardens, Miami. Her mother is a cashier. But though her neighborhood was working class, she says she only saw a fraction of the challenges facing youth of color.
By the time she left college at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Douglas knew she wanted to end up in youth advocacy.
The work of the Children and Family Justice Center drew her towards law. In 2010 she came to work with CFJC for a summer. Mainly, she collected records for juvenile cases, and battled with county agencies to not hang up the phone on her. She says the process was humbling, and that it taught her not to accept the first answer, which was typically, “No”.
But Douglas' biggest lessons came from a case she worked on with CFJC between 2011 and 2012.
“I didn’t know what it was like to empathize with people...I knew that I was passionate and cared about people, but sitting across from a person that was essentially my age, but has vastly different experience growing up [was a different experience],” Douglas says.
She then adds solemnly, “A few of our clients grew up, had their childhoods, in a juvenile detention center."
On of those clients was Edward. Between the ages of 17 and 30 years old, Edward was locked up for sexual assault charges. Douglas explains that he was mentally disabled, with the academic, emotional and developmental capabilities of a middle school student.
However, Edward was considered borderline handicapped. Borderline conditions can be difficult to properly present in a case. Edward lost, and spent his young adulthood incarcerated.
Douglas teamed up with CFJC faculty attorney Alison Flaum and other law students to lower Edwards’s bail, aid him during his parole, and work on a retrial.
Douglas met with Edward and his family regularly. He would sometimes call her at night to talk about the struggles of being home after such a long incarceration and the strict rules of parole. With a 7p.m. curfew, it was hard for him to catch the two buses back from work and be home in time. He spoke about his fear of a random police visit, and the pressure to constantly report to his parole officer and family while working and trying to make friends.
Douglas didn’t mind the calls. She says Edward had just gotten his first cellphone, and his main contacts on the outside world were the CFJC team.
Though she “wasn’t prepared for post-legal work”, Douglas says that she learned to master the “balancing act…in terms of what could make him [Edward] happy and content while abiding by his legal restrictions while he’s out.”
For Douglas, her practical experience with clients at the clinic is what cemented her interested in public defender work. Playing the role of a student, attorney, and “quasi-social worker”, as she put it, was not a lesson found in the classroom.
“I think I needed that, to see what it’s realistically like to be an advocate… Every attorney that I’ve talked to [at CFJC] loves the work that they do. They eat, sleep, and drink it,” Douglas notes.
“And there’s nothing to feel bad about living your work, when this is work that you do,” she says.
Today, Douglas is a Disproportionate Minority Contact Coordinator for the state, a position suggested for her by CFJC director Julie Biehl. She works to keep youth of color out of the juvenile justice system.