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For Sara Zier, being a children’s lawyer means creating pathways and opportunities for young people to succeed as they define it. It means listening to and demanding that authorities listen to young people as they voice their needs and goals. It means being creative, keeping a sense of humor, investing in relationships, building communities of care and support, and showing up. It means advising young people about their rights in ways they can understand, ensuring that young people are aware of the available strategies to get their needs met, and partnering with them to hold systems accountable to properly serve youth. 

Sara’s journey as a fearless children’s lawyer began at an early age. While she originally thought she wanted to be a writer and a teacher, she was always called to advocate with people she cared for and for her community. She first became a child advocate when she was still in high school. She was part of a group of students who organized to address bullying and harassment of marginalized students and who ultimately changed school district policy to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation, a policy still in place today nearly 25 years later.

After high school and throughout college, she did not see herself as a lawyer just yet. Sara did policy work, worked on a crisis line, and participated in community organizing and training. To make money between undergrad and her dream Master of Fine Arts program, she was lucky to serve as the education director for a foundation that funded legal aid work in Washington, and there she managed a broad-based statewide effort to advocate for sufficient public funding for civil legal services. There she learned about the law as a tool for social and economic justice both through policy change and direct services.

Sara currently serves as the director of Legal Services at TeamChild—a nationally recognized organization located in Washington that works with youth involved, or at risk of being involved, in the juvenile justice system. TeamChild works to help youth secure the education, healthcare, housing, and other supports they need to achieve positive outcomes in their lives. She is still able to write a lot, just about much different content than she imagined. Now, she gets to tell true stories about power, inequity, exclusion, hope, growth, and restorative opportunities.

At TeamChild, Sara’s work is often different than the work of other attorneys—her clients are young people, and to be effective she must meet them exactly where they are physically, emotionally, and developmentally.

I travel to detention facilities, emergency rooms, shelters, McDonald’s, and family homes surrounded by relatives and household pets (eating home-cooked Guamanian food and holding a guinea pig are job perks, for sure)!

Sara understands that bringing a youth their favorite snack while they are incarcerated or in a hospital or a shelter makes an impact. Just taking time and listening about more than their legal problems matters. Because all these things say, “You are not alone. I see you. We are going to work together, and we are going to get your needs met.”

Sara is inspired by the power combination of rage and possibility. Rage at systems of power and inequities that they perpetuate, but also the possibility that things don’t have to be this way and that even small actions of resistance matter.

I feel tremendous affection and admiration for my clients and their strengths, and I feel the complexity and weight of the system failures and inequities they face. Each case I work on is as unique as the young person who we are representing, and that means our legal advocacy must be innovative and creative. Working with youth, I experience hope for them to achieve their goals, despair when new challenges stack up or solutions are unclear or insufficient, and joy in building relationships and sharing information, meals, and much more.

Sara understands that every single one of her clients is getting to know their strengths and interests. They have goals and dreams, even while facing complex issues and systems—housing instability, unsafe home or family situations, unfair and racist discipline at school—that have failed them time and time again. Sometimes, these problems are so big and so systemic they can feel overwhelming. Sara often wonders, “How will we make this work for this young person under these circumstances?” At TeamChild, they are driven to create solutions that serve their clients while remaining committed to a holistic approach to client needs, and Sara has garnered the ability to see young clients as what they are: young people who deserve comfort, security, and the opportunity to dream.

School pushout is where schools force or push youth out of school using means other than suspension/expulsion, and Sara has seen it become a major systemic issue exacerbated by the pandemic in 2020. We know from data that even missing a few days of school each year can have detrimental impacts on young people, and long-term exclusion is devastating, but the law is slow to address these wrongs. Sara understands that is the biggest roadblock—time. Youth continue to age while legal systems are slow.

We’ve made a lot of progress in the world intellectually understanding institutional racism, adolescent brain development, and economic disparities. However, we have a lot of work to do to apply those studies to individual circumstances. Often, these systemic factors are set aside when decision makers are confronted with an individual student who broke a rule or who is otherwise struggling. Judges, lawyers, school boards—they believe school administrators over low-income students and families. It’s an inherent bias that shifts burdens of systemic problems onto students and families who have the least power.

Sara along with other TeamChild attorneys first tried to use restorative practices, but when those didn’t work, they turned to the courts. Their innovation was to extend equitable remedies that have been used by courts to address denials of education to students who have disabilities and denials of education to students who were wrongfully disciplined in racial segregation cases. They have also challenged pushout as an unlawful school discipline practice.

TeamChild litigated up through the Washington Supreme Court, arguing that students have a right to return to their regular school after their suspension ends unless specific exceptions apply, and in a decision that was issued in December 2023 and published this month, the court agreed. State law prohibits indefinite suspension and expulsion and requires procedural protections before the right of education is taken away from a student. The court also held that courts could give relief when general education rights are violated. That means students can get court awards that make up for lost education.

Sara understands that there is still a lot of work to do, and TeamChild will keep working with youth to uphold their rights to education and increase equitable practices in schools, including strategies for addressing harm through positive behavior interventions and restorative practices so that students are supported, not excluded.

After almost two decades in this field of work, Sara has the following advice for new lawyers starting their careers in children’s law: Call people. You will need mentors, thought partners, collaborators, and folks who can support you to make this work sustainable.

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