Editor’s Note: The Campbell Law Observer is taking a break from its usual editorial cycle to present first-person accounts from our law students who have enjoyed summer internships across the nation. This is the second of four submissions to be published during the Fall 2015 semester.
When applying to law school, I knew that I wanted to help children, but I did not know how that would manifest itself in my legal career. However, after this summer, I have a much clearer path on how to achieve that. I had the unique opportunity to extern with The Honorable Melinda Crouch, a Campbell alumnae, in the 5th Judicial District Court this past summer in New Hanover County. A normal day consisted of divorce, alimony, and custody hearings, but we never knew where the day’s cases would take us in people’s lives; we were just along for the ride. I went into the summer thinking that I would see the law steering the proceedings, but instead I learned that in this area, relationships control almost every aspect of the litigation from beginning to end.
I learned that the most important relationship in the family courtroom was that between a parent and child. Ironically, the child is not even present the vast majority of the time, yet that is what brings a judge, bailiff, attorneys, clerks and parties together for hours at a time. Both parents are fighting each other for the “Best Interest of their Child.” The problem is that they never agree on what that is, and are forced to have a stranger (the judge) decide that for them. I heard several judges say that, in various ways, to parents when it got rough, and that there were no “winners” here—everyone had already lost. Occasionally, I saw an outcome that truly benefited the child, where it was a wholly positive experience and decision, but too many times, the courtroom victories came at too high an expense on all involved.
It is a failure of our system in North Carolina to often rely on the child’s testimony on the witness stand about why they want to live with mom or dad in front of strangers and their parents
The “Best Interest of the Child” rules the decision-making the majority of the time, but often, the professionals in the case had to rely on the child to tell them what that was. Several times, I observed children talk with the judge in chambers in private, but I could still see the stress, pain and fear in the tremble of their voice, or their puffy eyes from crying in the lobby, not understanding why their mom and dad were fighting. Too often the children blame themselves for the situation their parents have put them in, but the children don’t understand that it is never their fault or responsibility. Commonly, the minute court commences, the “Best Interest of the Child” test has already failed.
As someone who was asked to testify myself in the courtroom, I connected deeply with all of these children. I thankfully refused to do so, but there are many children who are pressured into testifying or coerced into it, and that experience is not in the “Best Interest of the Child.” It is a failure of our system in North Carolina to often rely on the child’s testimony on the witness stand about why they want to live with mom or dad in front of strangers and their parents. Obviously, there are situations where this is unavoidable; however, these circumstances are too common today.
Having child advocacy and representation in North Carolina is essential to the “Best Interest of the Child” in our justice system
On the last day of my externship, I was fortunate to observe the strongest advocate and best speaker I have ever witnessed. This girl was the only one to testify on the witness stand in open court in front of everyone about how she was sold for narcotics by her very own mother. At the age of 12, she stood firm and told the truth about what happened, how it happened, and why. It shocked everyone in the room, tears were shed, but justice was served. I watched her take control of her own life, and prove herself. She was the best advocate that I encountered at my externship this summer, and she was great at it.
Her testimony was in her Best Interest, but it was initiated, controlled and conducted on her terms, not her parents’ coaching. This example is an outlier in our system in North Carolina—demonstrating the criminal nature of the allegations and the events that heightened the need for the testimony. Having child advocacy and representation in North Carolina is essential to the “Best Interest of the Child” in our justice system. I learned this summer that more resources are needed for our children in the system in North Carolina. Too many times, the child was used as a pawn in a larger game centered and focused on money. Many attorneys zealously advocate for their clients’ interests, but only secondarily for the “Best Interests of the Child.” Showing pictures of bedrooms, schools, class attendance and soccer team pictures does not adequately represent the child in the courtroom. More needs to be done to protect the child from 1) enduring ongoing, high-conflict litigation during their childhood, 2) being used as a means to an end, and 3) being heard in the courtroom.
The increased role of mediation in the last 15 years has helped keep families out of the courtroom and concentrated on spending their time, effort and money on their children instead of paying lawyers.
I certainly did not come up with the answers to all of their shortcomings in our system over the summer, but it certainly helped me figure out what some of the problems were and where to begin to fix them. A diminution on the reliance of a child’s testimony in the courtroom to have to break a tie in the courtroom and an increase in advocacy and protection for the child is sorely needed. The Child’s Advocate in Wake County is the beginning of that goal. Appointing an advocate for the child and the child alone is in their Best Interest. The child should not have to endure the high stress of a courtroom or judge chambers to have a voice in what happens to them.
I learned that this is the most important thing in a spousal dispute. The increased role of mediation in the last 15 years has helped keep families out of the courtroom and concentrated on spending their time, effort and money on their children instead of paying lawyers. I cried on my last day of my job not because I was upset that it was over, but because I had watched many children suffer through stress, anxiety and fear all summer. The court staff could only do so much to prevent this and shield them from it all, but more needs to be done by us; the parents, siblings and advocates for these children. I hope that I can achieve some sort of victory for children in my own legal career, and I am still trying to figure out how to do that. One thing that I do know is that there is a lot more work to do, and reform is needed to achieve a better result in the courtroom. A victory in the “Best Interest of the Child” is a victory for all involved.
Jared Simmons is a 2L at Campbell University School of Law who will graduate in May 2017. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.