When asked what he does at the Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law, associate director Robert Latham responded with a small grin. “We create trouble,” he said, before quickly adding, “and try to avoid trouble too!”
On being nominated as our Fearless Children’s Lawyer for November, Robert challenged the notion that he, or anyone who advocates for children for that matter, can truly be fearless. Because in a society that always sides with the adults, it can be challenging to look another adult in the eye and say, “I’m siding with the kid.” “To do that,” he added, “you either have to be very brave or very stupid.”
Make no mistake, Robert isn’t one to back down from the scary things—he embraces them. In fact, he considers it very important that he still has an emotional response to every case he handles. Standing up against a parent, foster parent, case worker, or even a judge takes guts. He uses that emotion and that fear to inspire the critical work he does on behalf of Florida’s youth. Behind it all, Robert really sees his child clients as the fearless ones, and he’s just doing his best to make sure their voices are heard.
According to Robert, it’s important to try to view every situation holistically and never think of a client as just a collection of legal problems. Sadly, Robert explained, there are burnt-out professionals who practice emotional distancing by treating every young client just as “another file” rather than as an individual with a unique life experience. The child welfare system is calibrated to minimize risk, making it easy for disengaged caseworkers, lawyers, and judges to default to the position of “removal from the home is the least risky option” rather than pursue more difficult routes for keeping families together.
As hard as the job can be for Robert and his colleagues, he stressed that it’s important to remember that the child is always in a more difficult situation. More often than not, children don’t have an advocate within the system. Adults can be patronizing and condescending to young people, and advocating for children means you witness and experience this firsthand.
Call it resiliency or a bit of fearlessness, it's intrinsic to what Robert does day in and day out. In fact, Robert frequently tells the law students he works with at the Children & Youth Law Clinic that they will have a sort of a fight-or-flight response in children’s law. “If someone tries to harm a person you care about, do you want to fight or grab your loved one and run?” Burning out isn’t an option if you have that instinct.
At the clinic attorneys, social workers, psychologists, law students, and representatives from many other disciplines work together to advocate for young people in the state of Florida, both in individual cases and in the legislature. Working in this mixed team environment is engaging and energizing, and Robert especially enjoys working with enthusiastic and passionate law students. But it can be challenging. When the students experience their first failure with the system, he’s the one to help them understand that even if you do everything right you can still lose.
Robert doesn’t only bring his fearlessness and empathy to his profession—he also has a background in computer science. Using his tech skills, he locates and analyzes data from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) public court records to measure and visualize the impact of decisions across the system. Robert used this technique of converting data points into real life stories with charts and graphs to help Florida Youth Shine, an organization focused on empowering current and former youth in foster care, deliver trainings on real experiences in the foster care system.
For example, once he created a map covered nearly end-to-end with dots and lines from the panhandle of Florida to the Southern tip, and each mark was a foster care placement of a single child—here he brought the boy’s story to life. This boy stood in front of the data and shared memories from these placements and explained why he was removed from each one. The DCF data highlighted to legislators that every person’s experience in the foster care system is unique to them and legislation must be sensitive and avoid blanket rules, especially blanket rules that favor babies who will quickly be adopted out of the system.
Laws historically haven’t been designed with the large population of queer and non-binary youth in the foster care system in mind. This is an area that Robert also focuses on. Some years ago, Robert teamed up with fellow attorney Currey Cook to travel around the state to train local jurisdictions on the needs and rights of LGBTQ youth. Gathering insight from their experiences, they proposed to DCF that important changes be made to group homes in order to respect trans youths. The changes were adopted but were soon after overturned. The Children & Youth Law Clinic and other like-minded organizations launched a campaign encouraging advocates to write letters and speak up about their experiences with queer youth. The rules were adopted again. One day, the hope is for this to be the case in foster homes too. For now, the next fight is ensuring these rules are enforced to protect kids.
To Robert, advocating for a child means advocating for their entire community. According to Robert, within the child welfare system, there is a tendency for advocates to engage with individuals simply as a “child” or a “parent” when meaningful solutions require also seeing their identity as Black, queer, indigenous, or immigrant, for example. Though he doesn’t believe this is typically intentional, it can perpetuate discrimination in the work done with children and families, and further disenfranchise them. Robert has seen many such examples during his career. As ever, it is critical that the child welfare system and child advocates look at each child and family holistically and meet them where they are. It is the only way to achieve effective outcomes.