Can you give us a brief overview of how the CLC serves the community?
Michelle Dhunjishah: The CLC provides training for more than 12,000 child welfare and juvenile justice professionals annually. This means attorneys, judges, social workers, law enforcement personnel, guardians ad litem —almost anyone who works on behalf of children — have access to resources and training from us.
In fact, the CLC offers a variety of high-quality training programs for professionals in these fields. Some current trainings we offer include Child Death Investigations, Child Testimony in Family Court, and Identifying and Responding to Child Sex Trafficking in South Carolina. The CLC also offers ongoing training for mandated reporters, forensic interview training, and courtroom skills training for new Department of Social Services case managers.
The CLC staff also produce written and online materials designed to serve as guides for these same professionals. And when the need arises, we are called upon to adapt those resources for the ever-changing reality that unfortunately has a disproportionally negative impact on vulnerable children and families. The CLC strives to provide resources that are concise, useful and responsive to particular issues that might arise affecting services to children.
For instance, we know that teachers are on the frontlines of recognizing possible signs of abuse or neglect they might observe in their classrooms and are mandated reporters of abuse and neglect. But because of COVID-19 and a shift to virtual learning, the ability to recognize potential signs of abuse and neglect also shifted. Recognizing this problem, we published a fact sheet for teachers and others interacting with children on a daily basis to help them recognize possible signs of abuse or neglect in a virtual setting. We also just launched a new training curriculum that we are delivering to teachers and other mandated reporters in an effort to ensure these professionals are equipped with the tools they need to effectively identify and report suspected abuse or neglect they observe during virtual learning.
How is the CLC already making an impact in South Carolina?
MD: In addition to our comprehensive training programs, the CLC is wrapping up one grant and has two more in progress from the United States Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
The grant we are finishing involved training for child welfare and juvenile justice professionals, data analysis, preparation of resource materials and development of recommended court practices for South Carolina Family Courts aimed at reducing the likelihood that maltreated youth will become delinquent and to reduce recidivism of these youth who are already involved in the juvenile justice system. Children who have been abused or neglected are more likely to become involved and to penetrate further in the juvenile justice system, and this contributes to the overrepresentation of minority children in that system.
One of our ongoing grants is to develop a screening tool, best practices and standardized training curriculum to help law enforcement officers identify and respond to juvenile victims of sex trafficking and juveniles at high risk of becoming victims of sex trafficking. The additional grant we were awarded in the fall will analyze factors impacting youth being institutionalized for status offenses with an overall goal of reducing or eliminating the number of young people institutionalized. Status offenses are noncriminal offenses that children and youth may be charged with only because of their age (e.g., incorrigibility, truancy, and running away).
In addition to this work, the CLC is statutorily charged with supporting the Joint Legislative and Citizens Committee on Children, a bipartisan group of legislators, stakeholders and citizens who identify and study key issues facing children of South Carolina and provide information to the governor and General Assembly related to policy, funding and legislation that affects children. The Children’s Committee is currently involved in policy and legislative initiatives related to the incarceration of children sentenced to life without parole, incarceration of status offenders, increasing penalties for sex buyers, safe harbor for child victims of human trafficking, teen dating violence prevention and child hunger. The CLC also supports efforts to improve the child welfare system in South Carolina through the provision of staff and research support to the South Carolina Family Court Bench-Bar Committee, the South Carolina Children’s Justice Act Task Force and the South Carolina Citizen Review Panel, and works to implement federal Court Improvement Grants in partnership with the Judicial Branch and the Department of Social Services.
Tell us about the expansion of the CLC. How will it make an even bigger impact on our state?
MD: In the summer of 2019, University Foundations was able to purchase the former First Church of Christian Scientists building at 1114 Pickens St. — directly across from the School of Law — thanks to a leadership gift from Joe Rice ’79, his wife, Lisa, and their daughter Ann E. Rice Ervin. The balance of their gift is going toward renovations, which are now in full swing with an anticipated completion date of June 2021. Once finished, this building will be home to the Children’s Law Center Training Center.
This space will provide an area for the child welfare professionals who are in the trenches with South Carolina’s vulnerable children and youth to gain practical, hands-on experience with situations they will encounter in their careers. It will house a mock courtroom, which will be of benefit to more than just attorneys. Prosecutors, investigators, forensic interviewers, DSS case managers and others can use this space to gain valuable courtroom skills and help them prepare for actual experiences in the courtroom.
The training center will also feature a mock crime scene apartment. Used as a simulation lab, the fully functional apartment will provide ample space to train child welfare practitioners, investigators, forensic interviewers, prosecutors and first responders who may have to visit a home following a reported occurrence of abuse or neglect.
We look forward to exploring with the law school ways that this training center can be used to enhance learning experiences for law students who are completing the children’s law concentration.
How can the community help in these efforts to further this building project?
MD: South Carolina was recently ranked 41 out of 50 states for children’s well-being, which means our work remains as important as ever. The community can help in these efforts not only by spreading the word about the important work we do and the impact it has on our state, but also through giving. By making a contribution, they are helping not only the transformation of this building, but also the lives of children directly impacted by the work of the professionals we serve.