By Deborah Willoughby, a JD/MSW student and incoming 3L at the University of Windsor.
I would never have expected that during a global pandemic I would have the opportunity to work at an organization which I have admired and hoped to engage with at some point during my law school career. As a summer law student with JFCY, I was able to gain a greater understanding of the legal rights of children and youth. I have also seen circumstances where the clients do not know their rights or adults have taken advantage of or violated these rights.
Under the supervision of the staff lawyers, I was able to complete legal research on evolving matters, engage with clients through interviews and intake meetings, and participate in clinic workshops. I was also able to engage in community practice meetings which involved discussions on how to provide better services for youth during COVID. Additionally, I was able to assist with updating educational material for the Street Youth Legal Services Program (SYLS) which focuses on providing legal advice and information to youth who are homeless or unstably housed. These youth often face complex barriers in addition to their legal issues including lack of supports or access to services, financial constraints, and mistrust which may prevent them from getting the help they need.
I am grateful to have contributed to the SYLS program as the goal of the program resonated with me. Specifically, it aims to educate youth on the value of the law which can empower even the most vulnerable individuals. Often times when reading cases of injustice and witnessing the ongoing injustices racialized communities are facing, it is easy to lose sight of how the law can be used to empower communities. Nevertheless, there are some cases that remind me that justice can be achieved. I have also seen how access to legal information and supports can be empowering to young folks, particularly those who are vulnerable and it can be used as a tool for them to better their life circumstances.
Overall, I was impressed with how the entire staff provided compassionate service to all clients from the initial intake or referral process to taking on client files. The lawyers exemplified the exact manner in which I hope to practice which is with a compassionate and empathetic lens. Particularly in working with children and youth, these clients are so resilient and some have been through a series of trauma or complex circumstances. I recognized that the lawyers’ approaches were wholistic in having to keep in mind their client’s age and how that affects their legal issues which are often compounded by social and environmental factors. As well, the clinic’s client-centred approaches empowered clients which is even more impactful for children and youth whose voices can often be lost in the legal process.
Through participating in client intakes and follow ups on their files, I saw how the lawyers engaged with genuinely understanding the complexity of their clients’ sociolegal issues while providing a rights-based approach rooted in anti-oppressive practice. These frameworks are so important since the children and youth are the experts of their life experiences and by treating them as such, JFCY allows them to be engaged in the legal process.
The pandemic proved to be an interesting challenge for everyone as most had to adapt to working from home. Although everyone at JFCY worked remotely, I truly felt like part of the team with our weekly Zoom meetings and check-in calls with my supervisor. I also appreciated how the clinic made space for discussions on anti-black racism and police violence against Black communities. The clinic also allowed students and staff to participate in allyship and solidarity webinars throughout the summer and provided safe spaces for debriefs and discussions.
Ultimately, my experience at JFCY allowed me to develop my social work and legal skills in a practical way within a supportive environment. It was reassuring to work alongside lawyers who were years into their careers yet were still just as passionate and excited about their work in advocating for the rights of their clients. I hope to carry the same level of passion in working with my clients in my future area of practice as was exemplified at JFCY.