The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights defends the right of every Louisiana child to fairness, dignity, and opportunity. Their holistic defense helps young people achieve their legal and life goals.
Ariel Test is an attorney for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. Her and her team defends the vast majority of kids arrested in Orleans Parish.
“It is really hard because sometimes we feel disempowered and it’s a painful reminder of how disempowered our clients feel,” says Test. “Because sometimes we go into court and we can’t make our voices heard and our voices are some of the more powerful voices in the room.”
A big part of Ariel Test’s job is translating: explaining legalese to her client, and explaining her client to the courts. When she initially meets a client in custody, Test explains the procedure and timeline for trying his or her case. She also goes over the police report.
“I’m very careful in that first meeting when I go over the police report with the child and say: this is what the police are saying happened. I’m not saying everything in it is true, but you have to know what they’re saying,” explains Test. “That’s very hard for a kid to understand. Sometimes there are significant untruths in police reports and sometimes there are untruths that seem rather irrelevant, but for a kid who’s very concerned with what is right and wrong, it can be really frustrating for there to be inaccuracies in the police report.”
But the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights takes a very holistic approach to representing their clients. So when she first meets them, Test asks: what are your needs?
“What is the reason that brought them into court?” Test asks. “Not the crime, but what else is going on to see if there’s anything they want to try to work on. Because it’s really important that I am working for their expressed interests. It’s important for me to say: okay, you’re telling me that you’re not going to school. What do you want me to do about that? Here are the options of what we can do about it, but I’m not going to take any steps without your permission. Because sometimes a child can say to me, I’m having a hard time in school, but they can also say to me: I don’t want school to know that I have a lawyer.”
Test is part of a defense team. Along with two attorneys – one criminal, one civil – each client is assigned a social worker, a youth advocate, and a trained investigator who interviews the client, witnesses, friends, and family. Test says a trained investigator is crucial.
“Because regardless of the intention of the person who writes the police report, in the end it’s a short document that can’t tell the whole story,” says Test.
In addition to the direct representation of children, the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights also works on systems-level reform to make Louisiana a fairer and more equitable place for all of its children.
“We usually get a police report that’s very, very small,” says investigator Marecca Vertin. “It’s a handful of facts, and so we want to learn everything and speak with everyone that we possibly can.”
Marecca Vertin says when people understand she’s not investigating for the police, they want to tell their stories.
“We are looking for other possibilities that might have happened, which is almost always there’s some other possibility,” says Vertin. “There are some facts that are learned that at least complicate things based on the original facts that were given in the police report. It’s very rare that I would go out and do an investigation and come back and say: that’s how it was.”
Anna Arkin- Gallagher is the civil attorney at the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. She deals with all of a client’s civil legal issues: like housing — say if the family is being evicted — or benefits, if a family is having trouble attaining them. But for the most part, her work has to do with education: getting her clients eligible for special education or defending them in school discipline proceedings
“There are cases where a client of ours may not be getting the services he or she is entitled to in school,” explains Arkin-Gallagher, “and is therefore having a really hard time in school, having behavioral issues in school, getting suspended a lot, spending a lot of time out of school, and those can both complicate the ongoing delinquency case and in certain cases, lead to delinquency case.”
“For myself personally,” says Harpreet Samra, a social worker on the team, “I grew up in a very stable environment, where all of my needs were being met in one way or another. If I needed assistance, I had someone there that would be able to give it to me. And I think a lot of the resources for our kids are either lacking or they have no idea how to get them.”
Samra says if a child’s needs aren’t being met – in terms of education, physical and mental health, family, housing, having supportive adults and structured activities — it’s easier for them to end up in the system.
“We don’t look at our kids as their charges,” explains Samra. “I think that’s so important in the work that we do. Because as soon as someone starts doing that, you can look at someone differently. But if you look at them for what they actually need, it’s a completely different relationship you have with your client.”
Samra says in a city suffering from so many unmet needs, it’s unfamiliar for these kids to have someone say: I work for you.
“How can I help you?” Samra asks her clients. “And [I] actually listen to what it is they have to say. They don’t really get asked that question. By anyone. Sometimes you get blank stares, like, what do you mean? What do you want? What do you want out of your life? What do you want to be when you grow up? How do we get you there? What do you have to start doing now?”
Caroline Gabriel, is a youth advocate on the team, whose job is to get to know the clients at home and at school, to know all the issues facing the client, and most of all to establish trust.
“A lot of kids at first don’t understand our roles and they just see us as being part of the system, part of courts,” explains Gabriel, “and they don’t always trust everyone, which is understandable. I try to explain myself in the best way and let them know we’re on their side and I work for them. They’re the boss.”
Written by Eve Abrams for the Community IMPACT Series and produced by WWNO in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation. Learn more about Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.