October 03, 2019 Article

My Path to a Career in Children’s Rights

I could no longer settle for my ability to make a difference as a cheer coach. I knew that going to law school would give me the power I needed to help.

By Taylor Simoné Madison

“What type of law do you plan on practicing?” I am not sure if this question is dreaded universally among future law professionals or if the animosity, disgust, and hatred I have for this question is purely personal. Although it is a seemly simple question, I grapple with a proper response. Do I tell the truth about my plans to be a children’s rights litigator? Do I pretend like I haven’t decided on a career path? Or do I just awkwardly act like I didn’t hear the question and hope that it is not repeated?

My mission in avoiding telling people the type of law I intend to practice does not stem from shame or embarrassment; in fact, there was a point in time where I was excited to share my goals of becoming a children’s rights litigator. I am aware that the majority of lay individuals are unfamiliar with the field of practice, so I was excited to share some knowledge. To my dismay, my joy and excitement would quickly be usurped by hypercritical remarks such as “How much does that pay?” or “You won’t make money doing that!”

Initially I would attempt to combat such snide remarks with an explanation, but I found that would lead to even more judgement. Over time and out of pure frustration, I found it easier to avoid talking about my career aspirations all together. Providing even more of a challenge, my journey to law school and dreams of being a children’s rights litigator stemmed from my time as a competitive cheerleading coach, which is a concept that is not easily grasped by others.  After all, how does one effectively assist others in understanding there is in fact a correlation between cheer bows, sparkly uniforms, and the law?     

How I Got Here

If I was asked seven years ago where I see myself today, you can rest assured the answer would not have been law school. Honestly, if I was asked even eight months before starting law school, law school still would have not been the answer. I always believed that my purpose in life was to coach competitive cheerleading; it was my passion and what I saw myself doing for the rest of my life. In fact, upon completing my bachelor’s degree, I was prepared to take a corporate management job in the competitive cheerleading field.   

I coached competitive cheerleading for over six years to approximately 150 at-risk and underprivileged girls and boys a year, ranging from ages 4–17. The average cost of participation in competitive cheerleading is between $3,000 and $4,000, putting it out of reach for the kids we worked with, so we offered participation at no cost to our athletes.     

I took my title as “Coach Taylor,” or as my cheerleaders called me “Tay-Tay,” very seriously. My cheerleaders were more than just kids I coached, every single last one of them were like my children. I was technically just their cheer coach, but many times I had to play the role of a parent, friend, teacher, etc.  Sometimes I held the responsibility of making sure kids had shoes to practice in, a ride to school in the morning, or that they simply ate a meal that day. 

There were moments when the responsibility was too much to handle, after all I was a young adult myself. During those moments of feeling overwhelmed or frustrated I would have to remind myself that for some of these kids, I was all they had. These were poor kids who were facing run-ins with the law, school behavioral problems, abuse or neglect in the home, vicious custody disputes, even teen pregnancy; and cheer was their only opportunity to escape the stress, worry, or turmoil taking place at home.

The pivotal transition from cheerleading to law came when one of my cheerleaders didn’t show up to practice following the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday break. I called her mom to find out her whereabouts, and she informed me that my cheerleader’s biological mother picked her up against her will a month and a half ago and she had not seen or heard from her since.

In the fight to get her daughter back, the mom sought help from anyone who was willing to give her the time of day. Sadly, during her time of need, many legal professionals turned her away and told her she could have avoided this situation if she had consulted with an attorney regarding custody from the beginning. After months of fighting to get her child back, she was left with no recourse through the law. She had to come to terms with the fact that the child she had raised for the last 14 years would probably never return home.

After six years of seeing my cheerleaders face issues of abuse, neglect, custody disputes, and more; after losing a kid I coached for years; after seeing my cheerleaders lose a valuable teammate; and more importantly, after seeing a mother lose a child, I finally reached my breaking point. I decided I no longer could settle for the false idea that my ability to make a difference in these kids’ lives was limited to what was granted to me as a cheer coach. I knew that going to law school and becoming a children’s rights litigator would give me the power I needed to help these kids and kids just like them.

Advice I Got from Current Children’s Rights Litigators

During my 1L summer internship, I had the opportunity to work with Acadiana Legal Services located in Lafayette, Louisiana, in their Child in Need of Care (CINC) unit. CINC represents children in children in need of care, families in need of supervision, parental rights termination, and child abuse and neglect cases. The office also handles special education cases as well as school disciplinary proceedings.  Although I knew children’s rights litigation was my career goal, until working with CINC I had no prior exposure to the field of law. While working with CINC, I utilized my time as an intern to retain as much knowledge and hands on experience as possible, but more importantly I learned three hard, yet invaluable, lessons that have prepared me for my future as a children’s rights litigator.

You will be emotionally drained. In the first case I assisted on in CINC, I found myself crying like a baby during a hearing for neglect. In the midst of trying to pull myself emotionally together, I told myself that I must be too sensitive for this job. I could not fathom how the judge, attorneys, social workers, and others in the court room could hold it together. I figured they are all were either cold hearted or had become emotionally numb.

I eventually learned that having the urge to cry after reading some of the case files is quite common and normal. There are also moments of anger and pure hatred for some of the things that are done to these innocent children. One attorney said, “Being emotional does not make you weak, or not the right fit for this job; it just makes you human. It is not your emotional strength that will make you successful, but the strength that empowers you to be an effective advocate on behalf of the children.”

You will get personally attached. I had the opportunity to spend time with some of the kids in the CINC unit, and it was honestly always the highlight of my day. Even though these kids were in the midst of complete turmoil, they still carried so much joy in their hearts. They were always happy and excited to talk, and I was always happy and excited to listen. During small conversations, I learned their likes and dislikes, their favorite colors, favorite food, their hobbies, etc. After spending time with the kids, I found myself getting easily attached and wanting to foster them all. I know my tiny one bed room apartment could not accommodate us all, but it would be filled with love. I make that statement because trust me I’ve considered it, but reality sets in, and I realize that I cannot fit 50+ kids into my apartment.

I asked the CINC attorneys how can they do their jobs without becoming attached or wanting to take every child in. They reassured me that wanting to give every kid a home, raise them as your own, show them the love they deserve, and protect them from the world is normal. You develop relationships with the kids in which they trust you and rely on you to effectively advocate for them and their needs. But, once a child has been permanently placed, a judgement has been rendered regarding the permanency of the child, and the case has come to an end; you must rest assured that you did well by that kid. You cannot get distracted or caught up in the “what if’s” regarding that one single case, because there are more cases and more children that need your attention and focus.

You will want to save them all. Following my internship with CINC, and as I prepared to go into my second year of law school, I had not only gained legal knowledge but I now had hands-on experience in children’s litigation. I thought I had it all figured out in terms of my next steps to becoming a children’s rights litigator. As quickly as I became cocky in my new found legal experience, I received some humbling advice from Catherine Krebs, the director of the ABA Section of Litigation Children’s Rights Litigation Committee. She said, “When I was a young lawyer, I was focused on ‘saving’ my clients, but over time I came to realize that the job of a children’s lawyer is not about saving but instead about empowering our child clients and amplifying their voices.”        

In that moment I realized I did not have everything figured out, and not to be dramatic, but I began to question my entire life. I am not trying to imply that I perceived her statement as a personal attack against my journey, but I could not rationalize how “the job of a children’s lawyer is not about saving.” Her advice contradicted my belief in the idea that the drive to want to save children is the basis of what makes a good children’s advocate.

As I pondered on her advice a little longer, despite Ms. Krebs’s advice originally being a hard pill to swallow, I realized that her advice was meant to illustrate the important role I will play as a future children’s attorney. The role of a children’s attorney is not limited to simply making a child’s life better by saving her from the turmoil she is facing. The job of a children’s attorney is to stand with the child and fight back against the injustices she is facing, to be her voice in telling the world when “enough is enough,” and to give her back the power that was taken from her.

Advice I Can Give You

As you begin or continue along your journey through law school, people will give you advice on what they believe is the ultimate hack for getting into and through law school and choosing the most successful career path. Rest assured I will not be contributing to that unsolicited advice. In all honesty, I don’t have much advice to give because I am still trying to figure it out myself. I cannot tell you how to get a high score on the LSAT, what law classes to take, or how to rank number one in you class. But what I can tell you is there will be times throughout your journey into and through law school where you will question your abilities; I say that because I know I frequently question my own. In the midst of those trying times, I find the only thing that keeps me empowered is reminding myself why I began this journey in the first place. Whether you knew you wanted to be a children’s rights litigator since you were born or a bunch of cheerleaders set you on your path, however your journey may begin, go forth with purpose and determination.

Your Next Steps and Resources that Can Help

If you know children’s rights litigation is your purpose, or if it is something that you are interested in knowing more about, but you don’t know where to begin, the Children’s Rights Litigation Committee offers amazing resources to help you start your journey. The Committee provides a directory that includes a full list of children’s law centers that provide legal services to children and children’s legal clinics that are associated with a law school. The directory aids law students in staying up to date on developments in children’s rights litigation and locating potential jobs or internships to work in children’s rights. 

If you are not quite ready to intern or work with a children’s rights legal organization, do not worry and do not feel obligated to prematurely start working for children’s rights. Waiting does not mean that you will not be successful as a children’s rights litigator. You can receive invaluable experience from simply volunteering your time to work with children within your community outside the context of a client and attorney relationship. You can volunteer as a mentor, tutor, or sports coach. Besides staying hip and up to date on the current lingo and dance moves the kids do these days, working with children is a wonderful opportunity to learn how to interact with kids of various genders, ages, backgrounds, and personality types. It also allows you to become aware of some of the issues they may be facing and how to combat those problems. You can also volunteer to represent children in a pro bono capacity to learn more about the field and use your legal skills to improve the life of a child. Pro bono work is another great way to see if the field of children’s rights is right for you.

Taylor Simoné Madison is a 2L civil law student at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. 


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