The Legal Advocate

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Monthly Archives: August 2013

Child Advocacy: How a Tragic Death Could Ignite Desperately Needed Systematic Reform

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Re-posted by NITA from Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center

stephanieVillafuerteWritten by Stephanie Villafuerte, Executive Director of Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center

Sailor Serenity Kuhn was born on April 21, 2011.

She died on November 1, 2011, in a Colorado hospital, just a little more than six months of age.

Her death is a tragedy. A young life cut short by an unsparing hand. A life cut short not by accident, or illness or unforeseen circumstance —but by a father she depended upon for her every need.

According to the Cortez Journal, on November 1, 2011, police were called to Sailor’s home. The police were called to the house because Sailor was unresponsive and not breathing.

Sailor was transported to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead. X-rays showed signs of severe trauma to her head.

Within days, a medical doctor ruled that Sailor’s death was a homicide, after injuries to the infant did not match her father’s explanation for the abuse.

The Journal reports that Sailor’s father, Dylan Kuhn, initially told police that he had been sleeping with the baby in her in bed, and woke to find her hanging over the side of the bed with a blanket wrapped around her neck. He said he tried to give her CPR but could not revive her.

He later suggested the death may have been caused by the baby falling off a couch on previous occasions.

After the doctor said the injuries did not match a fall from the couch, Dylan Kuhn confessed to “partying” the night before on Halloween, being tired, and slamming his daughter’s head down on a surface, killing her.

Dylan Kuhn was charged with child abuse resulting in death, a charge that carries a mandatory prison sentence. The district attorney allowed Dylan Kuhn to plead guilty to a negligent homicide charge—a charge that obscures the truth in this case because under the law it is considered to be a “non-child abuse” charge. It is also a charge that allowed Dylan Kuhn to be eligible for a probationary sentence.

Dylan Kuhn was sentenced September 25, 2012.

His sentence: probation with 90 days’ jail time. His requirements on probation: to take a parenting class, not drink alcohol, and stay away from children under the age of 10.

Sailor’s case is important because it illustrates the fact that child abuse, despite three decades of public policy and legal interventions, continues to critically impact the lives of our youngest citizens.

This case is also important because it is a poignant reminder that even those involved in the system, such as the judge and the prosecutor in this case, continue to misunderstand and severely undervalue this crime that occurs to the most vulnerable and needy of our citizens.

Within days of Dylan Kuhn’s sentencing, I received calls from local and even a national media outlet asking if Colorado’s child abuse laws were too lenient and in need of revision. My answer was no. As a former criminal prosecutor who specialized in the handling of child abuse cases, I find that Colorado has some of the most stringent laws in the country. However, even the most carefully crafted laws are ineffective if the law is not applied and imposed by the public servants we entrust to do so.

Sailor’s death is a tragedy. It is an even worse tragedy if we ignore how her death was treated. System failures such as those that occurred in this case need to be addressed. Increased education and training are needed to ensure that children like Sailor who suffer a violent death are treated with the respect, care, and dignity that they deserve.

NITA offers a program each year in Hempstead, New York, specifically geared toward Child Advocacy. This program develops the skills necessary to be a competent and skillful attorney for families and the children involved in these proceedings. Check back here for information on our upcoming 2014 program, or find out more here about our public service programs, which include advocacy training in child welfare cases.

We also offer a couple online resources. Available on demand, these two videos are free and focus on Direct Examinations in Child Welfare Court or Making and Meeting Objections in Child Welfare Court Proceedings.

About the author:
Stephanie Villafuerte joined the Children’s Law Center as its executive director in July 2010. Stephanie is a longtime child advocate who has spent 22 years working with children who are victims of physical and sexual abuse and neglect. She has worked tirelessly as a legal advocate in state and federal courts as well as in the public policy arena to ensure the protection of abused children.

Check back to Stephanie’s blog to see her latest thoughts on child abuse issues.

About Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center:
The mission of the Children’s Law Center is to transform the lives of abused, neglected, and at-risk children through compassionate legal advocacy, education, and public policy reform.

Child Advocacy Month Comes to a Close

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Wrapping up this month’s theme on child advocacy, we give you a short excerpt from our free on-demand video, “Making and Meeting Objections in Child Welfare Court Proceedings.” In this video, Marvin Ventrell, Director of Community & Alumni Relations at the Harmony Foundation (and former executive director of the Juvenile Law Society), goes into great detail about the art of making and meeting objections in child welfare cases.

The full video is available on demand. Click here to watch it now!

High Honor Bestowed upon NITA Board Member Mike Kelly

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Kelly_MikeNITA is proud to learn the good news that a high honor has been bestowed upon our board member and longtime program director, Michael Kelly, of Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger in San Francisco. He has just been inducted into the Inner Circle of Advocates.

This is among the highest honors a plaintiff’s trial lawyer can receive, and Mike Kelly no doubt fits the requirements for that honor. As stated by Ben Rubinowitz, another member of NITA’s board and fellow Inner Circle of Advocates member, “Mike is without question one of the top 100 plaintiff’s trial lawyers in the country.” Mr. Kelly is in his fourth decade of representing those injured by the wrongdoing of others. His practice includes personal injury cases arising from defective medical devices, catastrophic injury, wrongful death, medical negligence, product liability, government liability, and mass tort claims.

NITA proudly teaches trial lawyers of all stripes, and its faculty brings to our programs a cross-section of all communities of excellent trial lawyers – plaintiff’s, defense, civil, criminal, government, public interest, and law school faculty. We want the best, working together!

The Inner Circle of Advocates’ mission is to promote the highest standards of courtroom competence and the mutual fellowship and exchange of knowledge among outstanding trial lawyers. Membership is limited to 100 attorneys of exceptional qualifications who are respected among their peers and who are experienced and skillful in the handling of courtroom litigation.

Mr. Kelly is the 2011 recipient of NITA’s prestigious Robert Oliphant Award, recognizing his pro bono contributions to advocacy teaching. He also served for ten years as our director of teacher training programs.

Movie Review: No Wire Hangers, Choosing Your Own Name and the Irish Supreme Court

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Mcgahey_RobertWritten by guest blogger: Judge Robert McGahey

I teach the Judicial Externship Seminar at DU Law School. My students are working with judges in courtrooms from county to supreme courts and in administrative courts as well. We discuss a number of topics, including why people hate lawyers and are so afraid of the legal system. One thing I suggest to them is that the adversary system of justice encourages negative feelings; after all, every American court case has two things in common: a winner and a loser, and that’s bound to generate bad feelings.

But there’s one exception to that model: a non-contested adoption. Everyone who’s participated in one will tell you that while there may be tears, they are happy tears, and there is much more laughter than crying.

Since this month’s topic is advocacy for children, I decided to focus on three movies where children’s issues play a big part – and are not secondary to the parents’ divorce, as in Kramer v. Kramer. One is a horror story, one is a comedy, and the third is one of the best legal movies you never heard of.

The horror story is, of course, Mommie Dearest (which I’m sure many of you figured out from the “wire hangers” reference). Released in 1981, it was based on a book of the same name and tells the story of Joan Crawford, the Hollywood star of the ’30s and ’40s and the appalling relationship she had with her two adopted children, Christina (who wrote the book) and Christopher. Crawford was portrayed by Faye Dunaway, in one of the most over-the-top performances you will ever see. This film had a decidedly mixed reception. Some critics loved it, although the late Roger Ebert started his review by writing: “I can’t imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie.” Mommie Dearest was nominated for five Razzie Awards, and Dunaway won one for Worst Actress of the Year. In fact, this movie won a Razzie for Worst Movie of the Decade! But over time, the movie has developed a cult following and, while grotesque in many ways, can serve as a case study of what happens when adoptive parents are not carefully screened and adoptions are not carefully monitored. Don’t be fooled, though. Mommie Dearest is frightening enough and violent enough that the faint of heart should think hard before watching it.

In stark contrast is 1965’s A Thousand Clowns, starring Jason Robards as an unemployed TV writer, Murray Burns. Murray has guardianship of his nephew Nick, and comes under the scrutiny of social services because of his lack of a job, his unconventional lifestyle, and the freedom he allows Nick to have. (Nick is allowed to choose his own name, and goes by several as the movie progresses.) Murray and one of the investigating social workers start a relationship and as their love grows, Murray has to make some very tough choices, including whether to go back to a job he absolutely despises, writing for a children’s TV host named Chuckles the Clown. The movie spends a lot of time talking about freedom, conformity, the demands of “regular” living and other ’60s-type topics — although Murray is most definitely not a flower child. This movie will make you laugh, but it will also make you think. It’s one of those movies that I’m always thrilled to see when it makes a rare appearance on television. It will not give you nightmares, I promise.

Finally, the movie that’s the best legal movie you never heard of. Evelyn was released in 2002 and is “loosely based” on the true story of an Irish father battling the legal system and the Catholic Church to regain custody of his children. Pierce Brosnan (!) stars as Desmond Doyle, the father of Evelyn and two boys. The mother abandons them, and Desmond signs the kids over to the Ministry of Education, which places the children in separate Church-run orphanages, one for boys and one for girls. When Desmond decides he wants the children back, he is confronted with an anomaly in the law that, on its face, makes it impossible for him to do that. Desmond has no job, he drinks, and he has a lady friend he cannot marry, because, of course, in Ireland in the ’50s, he cannot divorce. But he believes his children are better off together — and better off with him. He comes to the attention of lawyers who decide to join his fight. The movie tells a stirring story of how this seemingly mismatched crew battles through the trial court level to the Supreme Court of Ireland, where its goal is to change not only the specific law that hamstrings Desmond, but also the Supreme Court’s role in interpreting the Irish Constitution. The decision is found at In re Doyle [1989] Irish Law Rep. Monthly 277 — but what does it say that the actual decision was rendered in 1955, but not published for fourteen years? This is a wonderful film for many reasons, not the least of which is the tension between what is right and what is legal, a tension that every lawyer and every judge will face in their legal lives.

All of this month’s movies should remind us how often children are made to suffer from the application of laws that are supposedly designed to help or protect them. They should also remind us that children deserve the best advocates that can be found — and trained. Whenever I teach a child advocacy program, I come away with a sense of awe for the dedication to justice shown by those who work in this field. They work there with little recognition, little support, and little monetary reward. Yet they are doing work that can only be described as noble. If you’ve never helped teach a child advocacy program, try to find one. Both you and the participants you teach will be the better for it.

August 2013 Executive Director’s Letter: NITA Knows Children Deserve Justice

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Karen M. Lockwood

Karen M. Lockwood

NITA’s many faculty members and the staff love our organization because it serves justice with intensity and vision. We are non-profit; we live to help courtrooms yield good trials and just results; and we pay attention to those having special needs for justice.

This includes children.

In 2011, 51 states reported having counted 676,569 victims of child abuse and neglect. That number is almost certainly low. From 2000 to 2005, the American Humane Association, a child advocacy group, pegged child maltreatment at numbers ranging from 880,000 to 910,000. In the succeeding recession years, one can imagine the extra pressure on children and can speculate about the latest numbers. The need for advocates is broadly spread among all children in the U.S., and felt by children in all of our populations and economic classes.

Child advocacy has long been identified by NITA’s Board as one of the areas of focus for our public interest programs. In 2013, NITA is running six programs on Child Advocacy, in Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, New York, Tennessee, and Utah, with a seventh with the ABA and 42 participants in our own facility in Boulder. As an example, that NITA/ABA program is summarized in one participant’s words: “It was INCREDIBLE! . . . This is not an overstatement, it was a transformative week for me. . . . By the end of the week, I was energized, ready to go home and kick some you-know-what in court. I just returned on Sunday, had a hearing on Tuesday, and can already see the difference in my advocacy skills.”

Lawyers who receive their certificates at the end of a NITA intensive skills program, whether public or customized for their firm or agency, often are surprised to learn that NITA is a section 501(c)(3) organization. Since 1971, we have gathered the best trial lawyers into a national faculty for over forty years, and we follow the same model of service today: superb trial lawyers around the country, from all practices, serving all types of clients, are invited to join our public program faculty because of their knowledge, skill, and love of teaching. They donate their time. They prepare carefully, learn our specialized teaching methods, collaborate with each other, meet new colleagues, and have a great deal of fun helping lawyers with less experience master that same knowledge and skill. Lawyers teaching other lawyers what they know about securing just verdicts. Using NITA’s own specialized methods.

Often the pathway to a faculty invitation starts with taking a program. There is no experience like it.

Come join us in a program this fall! And stay with us as your skills excel; we watch our advocates learn and we’d like to continue working with you as we continue expanding our talented faculty.



Karen M. Lockwood, Esq.
President & Executive Director
National Institute for Trial Advocacy

NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system.

NITA’s Goals are to:

  • Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy.
  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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