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Spotlight on: Guardian ad Litem Program

June 11, 2014

Children’s Law Center was founded to be a voice for children who were abused and neglected and grew into a comprehensive legal services organization for DC kids. Today, the many dedicated attorneys in our Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program are appointed directly by District judges to represent hundreds of DC’s most vulnerable children each year. The GAL team also includes social workers and investigators who help ensure that these children find stable homes and get the health and education services they need.

In January, two veteran Children’s Law Center staff were appointed to lead the GAL program: Michael FitzPatrick and Jen Morris, who became director and deputy director respectively. Both Mike and Jen have a wealth of experience advocating for children. They also have big shoes to fill. Outgoing GAL director Sean Staples and our prior legal director both left to become DC Superior Court judges.

Mike and Jen are both more than up to the challenge.

Mike FitzPatrick previously worked as a GAL attorney in Chicago, where he represented hundreds of children each year. Once in DC, Mike supervised area law students who appeared in DC Superior Court and developed a passion for training lawyers. This is a passion he has brought to Children’s Law Center, where he was Training Director before being appointed to lead our GAL program.

“Not only do Children’s Law Center GAL attorneys represent nearly 40% of all children in DC’s abuse and neglect system, but we also work to improve the quality of all attorneys who represent these kids, ensuring that all District children get the best representation,” said Mike. “We provide training and resources to other attorneys and work to influence District policies that touch kids’ lives.”

At Children’s Law Center, GAL attorneys go through eight weeks of training before they ever represent a child. This intense preparation is essential because representing District children who have been neglected requires a wide range of skills: courtroom advocacy skills, knowledge of the many areas of law that affect children, an understanding of child development and trauma, and the specifics of DC’s foster care and child welfare system.

Jen Morris says that the environment of constant learning and training cultivates thoughtful, creative and compassionate lawyers; three traits that both Mike and Jen say are essential for this work.

Jen has developed those traits over the course of her career at Children’s Law Center, where she started as a staff attorney in 2005 right after graduating from Howard Law School. Over the last nine years, Jen has worked with hundreds of children and built trust with some of the most traumatized teens.

Jen says that, even though the job can be challenging, she takes time to celebrate victories both big and small. She remembers one of her first cases at Children’s Law Center, when she helped three young siblings who were removed from their home at ages 3, 8 and 9. The case was complicated and it took five years to help these siblings find a permanent home together. Jen says that there were many small victories along the way, like finding the right therapist that the kids connected with and celebrating their successes in school as they began to excel.

The day finally came when the siblings were settled together in a loving uncle’s home; it made the years of effort worthwhile, she says. “This was the best outcome for these kids because they could maintain a connection with their family even if they didn’t live with their parents,” she said. “The two younger boys are now on the honor roll at school, and the older sister is graduating high school this year.”

It’s the ultimate goal of all our GAL attorneys to find each child they meet a loving home where he or she can thrive. It takes skilled leadership and a comprehensive approach—not just in the courts, but in school and throughout a child’s community—to bring safety and stability to DC’s children.

Mike and both Jen agree: “We want to do everything we can to set these children up for success.”