As New York Pauses St. John’s Child Advocacy Clinic Continues Its Vital Work

April 22, 2020

Necessity can be the mother of invention and, a few weekends ago, Professor Jennifer Baum needed to help her Child Advocacy Clinic (CAC) client apply for work authorization quickly. Relieved to find an open Staples store in a New York City paused by COVID-19, she printed the photos her client had texted her, trimmed them to passport size, attached the application, and overnighted it from the on-site UPS kiosk. 

It was a big step. "Our client, a victim of sexual violence in her home country, is seeking asylum in the United States with her teenage daughter, who we also represent,” explains Professor Baum, who has directed St. John’s in-house CAC for over 10 years. “They lost their temporary housing and had to move to a family shelter when the Department of Homeless Services converted their building to COVID-positive housing. With work authorization, the mom can hopefully get a job, earn income, and move her family out of the shelter. We’re also helping the teenage daughter get her work authorization, which serves as a form of ID and qualifies her for youth work programs.” 

While they are operating at a distance and navigating a hobbled legal system, Professor Baum and her clinic students remain steadfast in their commitment to helping vulnerable New Yorkers. It was that commitment that brought Sam Gagnon ‘21 from her Minnesota home to St. John’s Law. “The welfare of women, children, and families has always been at the center of my advocacy work,” she says. “After finishing my 1L year, I was even more excited to dive into the CAC because I was anxious to put my new foundational knowledge to practical use.”

Gagnon was less than a week away from her first court appearance as a student clinician when New York City, and the Law School, went on pause to help flatten the coronavirus curve. “It was disappointing when the courts closed to nonemergency cases and new filings,” but we still had important work to do for our clients,” says Gagnon. “I’m temporarily in West Virginia, my fellow CAC students and Professor Baum are elsewhere in their homes, but we collaborate daily to make sure our clients have the resources they need to get through this time that’s difficult for everyone, but particularly difficult for immigrants.”

Assigned to assist the mother-daughter client pair, Gagnon helped them apply for work authorization and is working on the daughter’s Special Immigrant Juvenile Status motion. She is also researching job opportunities for people who don’t have social security numbers and speak limited English. "It’s been a difficult search because there are some, in my view, arbitrary restrictions on certain jobs," Gagnon says. “For example, you can’t collect census data if you don’t have a social security number, even though they’re in desperate need of workers who speak a language other than English. There are lawfully present immigrants who don’t have SSNs yet, but who could do this work.”

Despite the obstacles, Gagnon finds fulfillment in the effort. “Being out of the classroom and away from classmates can be isolating,” she shares. “But continuing to advocate for our CAC clients is a constant reminder of why I came to law school. I’ve also gained invaluable experience drafting legal documents, interacting with clients with and without an interpreter, and finding creative solutions to legal issues. Above all, I’ve experienced first-hand the power to do good that will come with my St. John’s law degree.”