Thanks to the School of Law’s newest clinic, children in Allegheny County have a new set of advocates to help them navigate the juvenile delinquency court system.
Under the supervision of Assistant Clinical Law Professor Tiffany Sizemore-Thompson, student attorneys in the Juvenile Defender Clinic provide a variety of legal services to juveniles in the delinquency system. The clinic represents children who are charged with delinquency offenses, adults and children who are seeking to have their juvenile records expunged and children who are defendants in Protection From Abuse (PFA) allegations.
Regarding PFA cases, the Juvenile Defender Clinic is providing much-needed legal services—at no cost—that also assist Allegheny County, which doesn’t have the staff to consistently do so.
“In Allegheny County, these PFA allegations aren’t handled by the Public Defender’s Office or the Office of Conflict Counsel,” explained Sizemore-Thompson. “There is no group of lawyers designated to represent these kids regularly. So the child has to retain counsel or, in more complicated cases, the court will try to appoint someone to the case. I think it’s important that these children have representation that they otherwise wouldn’t have, and I’m thrilled that we could fill that gap.”
The Juvenile Defender Clinic provides free, holistic representation. Each case is staffed by Sizemore-Thompson, a student attorney, a graduate-level social work student and, when necessary, a mental health professional. Student attorneys get the opportunity to advocate for children in every aspect of delinquency cases, such as pretrial motions and litigation, investigation, admission and trial.
Sizemore-Thompson pointed out that expungement and PFA work are the signature offerings of the clinic. “The common misperception is that juvenile court is minor, that your juvenile record doesn’t ‘follow you,’ that these records aren’t open to the public and that there are no long-term effects,” said Sizemore-Thompson. “That’s not true. Many juvenile records in Pennsylvania are public. These records often come up in background checks, and employers often do not know the difference between a conviction and a juvenile adjudication. When in doubt, many employers will err on the side of not hiring.”
As a result, both juveniles and adults with these juvenile records are denied jobs as well as housing. “Although juvenile cases have a sense of confidentiality—and a lot of it is confidential—arrest records can show up on a background check, even for cases that were dismissed or cases where the child received a diversion programs,” said Sizemore-Thompson.
Clients with eligible cases can meet with Sizemore-Thompson and a student attorney, who then file a motion for the client. “People often don’t realize that only a small number of cases are not eligible for expungement,” said Sizemore-Thompson.
After a 30-day waiting period, they go before a judge and the student attorney can present the motion and the expungement order is signed. After that, the order is distributed to various agencies, including the Pennsylvania State Police, so that records can be updated.
“We generally advise clients to order their record from the Pennsylvania State Police after six months just to make sure that the record shows it has been expunged,” said Sizemore-Thompson. “It’s not a complex process, and we are committed to helping people get legal relief that can help create better outcomes for the future.”
The Juvenile Defender Clinic is one of the law school’s seven clinics.
“We are proud to expand the law school’s clinical program to bring these much-needed legal services to juveniles and those seeking expungement of juvenile records,” said Nancy Perkins, interim law dean. “This new endeavor builds upon our clinical program’s strong commitment to the Duquesne University mission while enriching our students’ experience with a unique, holistic approach.”