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Varying Paths to a Career in Children’s Law

Maureen Kieffer, Ghirlandi Guidetti, and Ashli Giles-Perkins


  • Children’s law has many career paths, such as defense attorneys, prosecutors, civil legal services attorneys, and guardians ad litem, primarily within the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
  • There are various legal and social issues faced by families in the child protection system, which emphasizes the importance of an intersectional approach in child law advocacy.
  • The broad scope of child law encompasses issues like criminal justice reform, education, healthcare, and human trafficking—all diverse opportunities in the field beyond traditional litigation roles.
Varying Paths to a Career in Children’s Law
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When I started law school, I had a very definite idea of what it meant to be a child law attorney. It was the role of a guardian ad litem or a juvenile defender working in the courtroom advocating for the client. Popular media fueled this understanding with movies like The Client and television shows like Judging Amy, where attorneys would wage courtroom battles presenting arguments on behalf of their child clients. In college, I spent a semester in the Dominican Republic volunteering in the burn unit of a children’s hospital. That experience changed my plans from attending medical school to attending law school with a focus on child law. I chose Loyola University School of Law in Chicago specifically for the Civitas Child Law program.

Law school exposed me to additional paths through speakers, internships, clinic, and courses. However, the primary career paths my child law classmates and I pursued were within the child welfare or juvenile justice systems, whether that was as a defense attorney, prosecutor, civil legal services attorney, or guardian ad litem.

After law school and a judicial clerkship, I worked at Legal Aid Chicago on the Children’s Law Project. As an advocate for foster parents, relative caregivers, and biological parents enmeshed in the child protection system, I was exposed to the multitude of legal and social issues these families faced. I found myself involved in bankruptcy, housing, consumer law, education law, and domestic violence cases, in addition to the child welfare system. I quickly saw the value of having an intersectional lens in working in child protection.

When I returned to Loyola as a career services advisor, I was given the opportunity to work with students who shared my passion for careers in child law. After over 10 years of this work, I have seen students with different areas of focus, and my definition of child law has continued to expand. Any legal issue that affects families is a child law issue. From criminal justice reform to immigration reform, from access to education to housing, healthcare, and public benefits, to human trafficking and international law issues, the breadth of need for advocacy and reform is vast.

Careers in child law also go far beyond the typical litigation career path. Many students come to law school with prior careers in education, social work, or healthcare, and along with these experiences, they also bring different visions of what it means to be a child law attorney and how they want to use their talents. Students also may choose to pursue dual degrees to add more tools to their advocacy tool kit.

This article highlights two examples of the many paths child law advocates have taken in advancing the rights of children and how their work has been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The way these advocates show up for their clients, despite the added hurdles of the pandemic, is truly inspiring to me, and my wish is that reading their stories brings you hope as well.

Ghirlandi Guidetti (JD, MPP 2015)

I am a staff attorney in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois’s LGBTQ & HIV Project. I am involved in a broad range of advocacy and litigation on behalf of LGBTQ individuals and people living with HIV. Since I joined the ACLU in the fall of 2015, my practice has focused on using the ACLU’s long-standing consent decree with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) (B.H. v. Smith, No. 88-C-5599 (N.D. Ill.)) to investigate the experiences of LGBTQ youth in the foster system and advocate for reforms to better protect and care for this vulnerable population. I have also represented students whose schools have denied them the use of the facilities that match their gender identity, solely because they are transgender. Because of my experience representing students, Illinois Governor Pritzker appointed me to the Affirming and Inclusive Schools Task Force in 2019. I earned my bachelor of arts in philosophy from the University of Southern California, with a minor in psychology and law. I am a graduate of Loyola University Chicago, where I earned a JD and a master of public policy degree.   

I often reflect on how fortunate I am to have found my “dream job” straight out of law school. I pursued dual degrees in law and policy because of the central and interacting roles those fields play in determining whether individuals can live their lives to their full potential. The ACLU’s integrated-advocacy approach of using litigation, public education, and legislation, and defending and expanding civil rights and civil liberties across a broad range of issues provides an ideal setting to work on behalf of vulnerable populations with an intersectional lens. I am especially passionate about representing youth because of the reverberating impact of improving young lives.

My current youth work involves a dynamic mix of client interaction, direct advocacy, and negotiation with the DCFS and other state actors; litigation (mostly legal research and writing, with less emphasis on in-court appearances); reviewing and drafting legislation and appearing as a subject matter expert in public hearings and private meetings with legislators; and public education, such as “Know Your Rights” presentations.            

A “typical day” involves balancing affirmative work to advance client-centered policy and litigation goals with reacting to the latest crisis in the DCFS. The position is fast-paced and anything but mundane. I draw great enjoyment from talking to young people and learning about the many intersecting aspects of their identities. I do not view young people as merely “children.” I see them as autonomous people who all have a race, gender, and other identities that shape how they experience the world around them. They may have a faith, and they can be immigrants, parents, survivors, artists, and scholars. Some have disabilities. They all have dreams and they all have rights.

A good day for me is one when a youth thanks me for listening or tells me they learned they have rights they did not know about. Most days are painful reminders of how our family regulation system tears families apart and fails individual youth, as well as the immorally slow pace of systems-reform work.

I have been working remotely since March 2020, when the ACLU’s office in Chicago closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. After a few months of shifting my attention to protest and virus-related civil liberties emergencies, my work returned to a new normal thanks to technology. I maintain a steady calendar of phone and video meetings with youth in care and DCFS representatives. My future plans are to continue working on behalf of vulnerable populations, including youth.

Ashli Giles-Perkins (JD, MEd 2020)

I graduated from Loyola University Chicago in 2020 from the law school and the school of education with a dual degree. Before moving to Chicago, I was a community organizer in Connecticut, focused on identifying and addressing the roots of the school-to-prison pipeline, equity in school funding, and culturally responsive curriculum. It was that work that led me to law school in the first place because—while working with and advocating for accountable budgets, legislation related to curriculum, and funding—barriers prevented certain goals from being attainable, let alone achievable. The more letters I wrote, rallies that I organized, workshops that I delivered, and meetings that I attended, the landscape became clearer. I realized that it was going to take a lot more than grassroots advocacy to break down decades of underfunding and institutionalized racism.

Fast-forward three years, and I am now in Philadelphia on a two-year fellowship, where I primarily serve youth who are system-involved (both delinquency and dependency), who are residing in or transitioning out of residential facilities, and who lack access to a quality education. When I applied for the fellowship, I boasted that I would be the only attorney, working full-time in Pennsylvania, focused on the intersection of system-involvement and eliminating barriers connected to education. I knew it would be difficult, but I was not prepared for just how high of a hill this work would be to climb.

Nearly all, if not 100 percent of my clients are Black; 100 percent of my clients are students with disabilities. A majority do not have parents who can advocate for them to receive the supports they need to be successful in school, and many come from traumatic and abusive backgrounds that led them to becoming system-involved in the first place.

For this type of work, no day seems typical. Calls and emails come in all the time. A few examples of the challenges my clients face are described below:

A student recently released from a detention center that was shut down due to allegations of abuse, who is now facing enrollment barriers back in the student’s district school.

Three students, two of whom have intellectual disabilities, all of whom are in foster care, living in a congregate care facility, going to an on-grounds school that cannot meet their educational needs. And after this was pointed out? All three students were removed from the rolls, languishing without any education at all.

An 18-year-old with emotional needs who is also an expectant mother and is being sent to a state-secure facility where she had previously been restrained dozens of times. This was especially devastating because I had just found her a full-time emotional support placement, and she also had a job lined up, as well as a bed in a therapeutic maternity home waiting for her.

A family living in a shelter where the student is unable to consistently participate in virtual learning, now being threatened with truancy court, fines, and even jail time for the parent.

Enrollment issues. Credits not transferring. Individualized education programs not being followed. Students with severe disabilities not being reevaluated timely, nor thoroughly, if at all. Schools in detention that shut down at the start of the pandemic and remain shut down or partially operational over a year later.

In a society where many understand education to be an opportunity, a door opener, a chance at achieving employment, stable housing, and being able to contribute back to society, I see a juvenile justice system that has put education on the back burner. The pandemic has taken all of the existing school inequities and shone a spotlight on them. Yet, for many students in detention and in residential facilities, much of the suffering happens in silence—away from the public eye, away from the eyes of parents, caregivers, or child welfare workers, and especially away from any involved attorneys like me.

The most challenging aspect of the work has been not knowing. Despite any victories that may have been achieved, because of the obvious closed-off nature of detention and congregate care settings, further compounded by the limitations due to COVID-19, I am unable to see the fruits of my labor in real time. I have not been able to meet in person with a single client or family, to date.

Of course, attaining a school placement for a child who otherwise was without education is a win. Being the catalyst to ensuring that a reevaluation that is three or four years overdue can take place is a win. Advocating for a student with complex needs to transition from 100 percent virtual learning to 100 percent in-person learning is a win.

Although the problems and challenges outweigh the wins (so far!), I feel inspired by my advocacy and know that I have to keep fighting. The system certainly is not going to change on its own.