Children and Youth Law Clinic Turns Twenty

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In 1995, a 17-year-old undocumented Haitian was living alone on the streets of Miami. He was named Edou, before his parents abandoned him, but called himself Tyson. His only bright spark came from the midnight basketball league in a public park. The volunteer coach there was a tax lawyer who would introduce Tyson to the University of Miami Children & Youth Law Clinic.

Clinic Director Bernie Perlmutter and first client Tyson

That same year, 3L Carolyn Salisbury received a fellowship from Echoing Green, a small foundation that supports social justice entrepreneurs. Dean Sam Thompson offered to host the project representing older foster youth as the first in-house legal clinic at Miami Law.  And so the Children and Youth Clinic was born.

It was befitting that a foundation named after a poem in William Blake's "Songs of Innocence" that tells the story of a young man cast out, would first benefit Tyson who found himself in similar circumstances. Bernard Perlmutter was hired to direct the new clinic with Salisbury, and the themes of purity lost and salvation found from Songs of Innocence would play out over and over in the two decades since.

From humble beginnings -- seven students in a cramped off-campus office -- the Clinic fought to get Tyson into foster care, where he thrived. The next generation of students would secure for him a green card, all the while ensuring that scores of other teens aging out of the foster-care system did not fall through cracks in the bureaucracy.

In twenty years, over 1,200 of Miami's most vulnerable young people have been helped and given a voice; more than 400 law students provided zealous and ethical advocacy, many going on to careers in social justice.   

“Cases come to life when you are in the clinic. They become more than words or theories,” says Jessica Yates, J.D. `11, who is now an attorney with the Guardian ad Litem Program. “Our clients were real young people, often the most forgotten in society, who need things that others take for granted.”  

As the clinic grew in size and reputation, the mission never wavered: to be an ardent champion for teens in the state foster care system. The student advocates are always making certain their clients receive appropriate placement and post-18 independent living arrangements, access to medical and mental health care, educational opportunity, and immigration and other legal services critical to their success.

“In the clinic, we learned to use our legal knowledge to innovate, we learned how to advocate, and we learned how to care,” says Yates.

In the early years, the due process rights of foster children facing civil commitment in locked psychiatric facilities was a dominant concern.  Appearing before the Florida Supreme Court three times, the Clinic was instrumental in landmark rulings establishing a pre-placement hearing and appointed counsel before involuntary commitment.  

The clinic tackled other big impact cases and policy projects. It brought a class action lawsuit to reform the broken child welfare system, filed amicus briefs to halt the indiscriminate practice of shackling children in courtrooms, and fought for appropriate care of LGBTQ youth, as just a few examples. They earned the adage "CYLC interns don't just learn the law; they make the law" through their appearances in trial courts, all the way to the Florida and United States Supreme Court, as well as legislative and administrative arenas.

Through it all, the lifeblood of the clinic is small cases with the power to transform a single life. Tyson would graduate from high school and head to college, with benefits from the state, thanks to the clinic's advocacy.  

The Clinic leaves its clients, students and community changed and bettered from the experience. Tyson left to start a non-profit that coaches kids basketball. He owns his IT consulting company working with law firms and other businesses. And he is the proud father of two boys of his own.  He returned to celebrate with the Clinic at their 20th-anniversary celebration earlier this year. As the Clinic closes out its fundraising campaign to mark the occasion, please consider designating the Clinic when you give to Miami Law.