Boost for Children’s Advocacy

Published: January 31st, 2005

Category: News

First Star plans to raise $2 million for a UF center that will train professionals to work with the legal system’s youngest clients.

A foundation created by a Hollywood insider is working to establish a multidisciplinary center to train those who deal with the legal system’s most vulnerable clients —children — at the Levin College of Law.

Washington, D.C.-based First Star, a foundation created by film producer Peter Samuelson, plans to establish three Multidisciplinary Centers of Excellence (MCEs) to teach child advocacy to lawyers, judges, doctors and others responsible for the care of abused and neglected children. In addition to the UF center, First Star plans to set up MCEs at Columbia University and the University of San Diego. The foundation plans to raise an initial $2 million for each of the centers.

“We are gratified to be one of only three schools in the nation — with the other two being Columbia and San Diego — to be chosen as a site for a First Star Multidisciplinary Center of Excellence,” said Dean Robert Jerry. “This is a tribute to the strength of this program, which with help from faculty members such as Barbara Woodhouse has become a national leader in children’s advocacy issues.”

“Children in the foster care and child protective services systems meet and interact with a sea of faces, all working to bring about a happy ending,” said First Star founder Samuelson. “But without understanding the multidisciplinary nature of abuse cases, these professionals are often at odds, engaging in senseless turf battles. The First Star MCE curriculum is designed to level the playing field so that the ultimate victor is truly the child.”

The First Star project will be administered through the Center on Children and Families, one of the fastest-growing programs at the Levin College of Law. The center offers the Certificate in Family Law, which allows students to work with children through the law school’s Child Welfare Clinic, the “Gator TeamChild” juvenile law clinic, family law externships, and fellowships that enable students to work on Friend of the Court briefs in cases related to children’s welfare.

The center has played a vital role in shaping family law policy in Florida, with faculty helping the Legislature with its model for a Unified Family Court. Faculty and students also have developed a pilot program to provide legal services to Florida’s regional Child Protective Teams, taught conflict resolution to incarcerated youth, and assessed the death penalty for juveniles as part of the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Moratorium Project, in addition to filing amicus briefs in a wide variety of cases involving child welfare. Faculty from the center work with the United Nations and other non-governmental agencies to address international issues of children’s rights.

“Our mission is to make sure the interest of the child isn’t lost in the workings of the legal system,” said Center Director Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, a nationally recognized expert in family and children’s law issues. “When children become involved in the courts, they come into contact with a number of different agencies, each with a different goal. It’s not uncommon for a single child to be caught up in a divorce case, a domestic violence case, and a child abuse case. Our goal is to make sure each case is built around the needs of the child.”