New Dickinson Law class trains students to become court-appointed advocates

September 22, 2021

Second-year student Ezza Ahmed (class of 2023) enrolled at Penn State Dickinson Law because she wanted to give back to her community by practicing law. When she learned of an opportunity to give back immediately, while she continues her education, she felt compelled to sign up. 

Ahmed is one of three students at Dickinson Law, along with fellow second-year law students Aranda Stathers (class of 2023) and Aria Plants (class of 2023), sworn in earlier this month as court-appointed special advocates (CASA) in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. The three inaugurated a new collaboration with CASA offering second-year Dickinson Law students a one-credit pass/fail experiential learning course, Introduction to CASA Training and Dependency Law, available the summer before their second year of law school. Completion of the course qualifies students to serve as advocates for children within the child welfare system during the second and third years of law school.

"I am in law school in order to give back to my community. Starting early and learning as much as I can about how to do so is really important to me in my legal career," said Ahmed. "That is why I am putting this experience at the forefront of not only my education but also my free time."

CASAs fulfill a unique role in the Pennsylvania child welfare system. They gather information through interactions with the child, their biological and foster parents, counselors, teachers, and more. CASAs then provide the judge in the child’s case with information and recommendations related to services or actions that focus on the child’s best interests. 

An extension of an existing collaboration

CASA volunteers are often referred to as an independent set of eyes and ears for the court, so it made sense to enlist law students for the volunteer positions. 

The class came about following discussions between Dickinson Law Associate Dean for Academic and Student Services Jeffrey A. Dodge and Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Children's Advocacy Clinic Lucy Johnston-Walsh

The Children’s Advocacy Clinic that Johnston-Walsh directs has a longstanding partnership with CASA. Volunteers often work with law students on cases, and Dodge and Johnston-Walsh noticed that many students expressed interest in learning more about the CASA program. 

“We essentially created a volunteer opportunity where students can receive academic credit for the training, with some supplementation from Jeff and I as professors,” said Johnston-Walsh. “Students can do this volunteer service during the course of their remaining time in law school. I see it as a really unique and exciting opportunity for them.” 

Plus, the course fills a need. Cumberland County, like most counties across the commonwealth, has a dearth of CASA volunteers. The program has sworn in 264 volunteers since 2000, with about 40 currently active volunteers advocating for roughly 60 children, though the county regularly has between 200 and 300 dependent children involved in the court system. 

“We would love to appoint a CASA volunteer to every child who is dependent through the court system in Cumberland County, but we definitely do not have enough volunteers to do that,” said Cumberland County CASA Program Outreach Coordinator Virginia Koser. “We are always looking for more people who are interested and willing to make this commitment.” 

She notes that CASA volunteers in Cumberland County currently tend to be close to or past retirement age, and the law school class could engage young people who develop a lifelong passion for the work.  

Dickinson Law class adapts CASA training 

Dickinson Law and CASA condensed the usual eight weeks of CASA volunteer training to four weeks, and the class began right after students finished their summer internships, before the academic year commenced. Class included simulations as well as learning about how trauma manifests in children and what adequate care and housing look like. 

Additionally, the Dickinson Law class touched on legal aspects of advocacy and a CASA’s purpose within the legal system. Johnston-Walsh and Dodge added a legal component by helping students understand the attorney’s part and contrasting it to the volunteer’s role. “I feel like I understood the course more quickly and thoroughly because of the legal concepts that we have learned so far, especially in criminal law and civil procedure,” said Ahmed. 

Koser noted that although CASAs come from all walks of life, a legal background is helpful. “These students inherently understand the role CASAs play because they already know more about the court system,” said Koser. 

The Dickinson Law students will be assigned to teenagers within the system, providing an experiential aspect Stathers welcomes. “My job is going to be to advocate for a child. And that is a core principle of being a lawyer, advocating on behalf of your client. It is a key skill I can sharpen in a way that cannot be done in a controlled environment like a school,” said Stathers. 

Plants embraces the opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life. “I think it is on us as this very small subset of the population going to law school to give back and share what we have learned, to help those who might not be able to be in the same position that we are. It is incredibly important for all of us to do what we can to volunteer and help out,” said Plants. 

“I am so impressed with all of the women who took this class and their willingness to take on this level of service while they are a student. Their clear commitment and interest in this are amazing,” said Johnston-Walsh.

Last Updated September 22, 2021