What inspired the Children's Justice Attorney Education Fellowship Program?
In a 2020 survey by Attorney Services, Nebraska judges reported a need for highly educated attorneys, with specialized training in child welfare, to serve in juvenile court. The study further revealed that the shortage is most prevalent in our rural communities. We have seen firsthand how the traditional law school experience doesn't provide future lawyers with the training and support they need to be effective attorneys in juvenile court while representing the county, parents, or children and youth. The Children's Justice Attorney Education Fellowship Program was created to serve as a resource to assist in filling this gap.
How is the Children's Justice Attorney Education Fellowship Program different than a traditional CLE program?
- Extensive training: Children's Justice Fellows will receive extensive education on state and federal child welfare and juvenile justice laws along with invaluable information and insight into the subjects necessary to become strong advocates, including but not limited to: trauma and child development, substance use, domestic violence, complex family dynamics, and specialized Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) training, as Indigenous communities primarily are in rural areas. As a Fellow, you will engage in case simulations and receive a Children's Justice Attorney Education toolkit created specifically for Juvenile Court practice.
- Case consultation: Juvenile court cases involve an array of issues that a legal practitioner can rarely master on their own. The Children's Justice Attorney Education Fellowship Program is designed for attorneys to have access to local child welfare and juvenile justice experts including psychologists, attorneys, child welfare practitioners, social workers, former systems involved youth, and mental health practitioners. This provides a unique opportunity for you to integrate social and psychological factors into any legal issues arising in your cases.
- Reflective practice: Reflective practice is a relationship-based practice that assists in mitigating the effects of emotionally intrusive work by helping individuals examine their current and past actions, emotions, experiences and responses to evaluate their performance and learn to improve in the future. This process relies on using people's own experiences to help them become more resilient in the face of work stress. There is no question that the issues present in juvenile court cases can create this type of work, and even personal, stress. Children's Justice Fellows will participate in reflective practice with each other, facilitated by a reflective practitioner.
2023 Program Details
Michelle Paxton, Director
Michelle Paxton directs the Children's Justice Attorney Education Fellowship Program and the Children's Justice Clinic at the College of Law and the Center on Children, Families and the Law. Michelle believes that effective advocacy in juvenile court requires both an understanding of the law and appreciation for the complex dynamics of children, families and stakeholders comprising the child welfare and juvenile system.
Michelle received her J.D. from the University of Nebraska College of Law in 2002. She has served as a Deputy County Attorney in Douglas and Lancaster Counties, specializing in juvenile law, domestic violence and general criminal prosecution. She also served as the Director of Legal Training at the University of Nebraska's Center on Children, Families and the Law, developing curriculum and training child welfare workers, probation officers and mental health professionals on all aspects of juvenile court process and procedure in Nebraska. Bottom line, while Michelle loves a good PowerPoint, she thrives by helping others be zealous advocates.
Laurel Johnson, Project Manager
Laurel Johnson is the Children's Justice Attorney Education Fellowship Program Project Manager. Laurel is employed by Legal Aid of Nebraska where she has practiced as an attorney in juvenile court since 2013, handling child welfare and juvenile justice cases. She has served as the Lancaster County Through the Eyes of the Child Initiative Coordinator, working closely with judges and community stakeholders to identify and address issues within the juvenile court system. Laurel loves any opportunity to brainstorm creative solutions whether it is for her own clients or the system as a whole.
Laurel received her bachelor’s in social work from Nebraska Wesleyan University and her J.D. from Creighton University. She maintains that representing children and parents in juvenile court cases is the ultimate use of her bachelor’s degree, which she is especially passionate about putting to use. She grew up in rural Nebraska and has strong connection to and appreciation for rural areas.
Laurel will help you issue spot, connect you with resources, and will chat with you about any and every juvenile court related issue.
Terra Garay, Project Assistant
Terra Garay will serve as the Children Justice Attorney Education Fellowship Program’s Project Assistant. In addition to her work on this program, she is the Children’s Justice Clinic assistant. Terra will use her impressive skills to coordinate all the trainings, case consultations, and reflective practice sessions for the program. If you are having trouble accessing materials or with program technology, Terra is one click away. She will also be your BFF and ensure you receive your attorney stipend.
CJAE Case Consultants
If you have already stepped into a juvenile courtroom, you have learned these cases require an expertise beyond what you learned in law school. Don't get us wrong, we think law school is great which is why Michelle started the Children's Justice Clinic, but we know attorneys in juvenile court need more. The Children's Justice Attorney Education Fellowship Program has a team of experts ready to help you learn and take your advocacy to the next level.
Samantha Byrns,MSEd, LIMHP, LPC, NCC, IMH-E
Sammi is a therapist specializing in early childhood mental health. She provides statewide consultation and training and also offers Reflective Practice.
Jennie is a mental health specialist whose expertise spans child‒parent relationships, family drug courts, dependency court system work, opioid and other drug use disorders, and trauma screening and treatment for children aging 0-5. Her experience includes private practice, training, Reflective Practice, and mediation.
Sarah Dunham,LIMHP, LADC
Sarah is a therapist with specialization in trauma and mental health in young children. She also facilitates trainings related to trauma and the Child Welfare Trauma Tool and has a history of working as an Intensive Family Preservation Therapist and a Child and Family Services Specialist in the Initial Assessment Unit.
Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda,JD, MA
Elizabeth has focused her career on education law for more than 20 years and has served as the Chair of the National Council of School Attorneys and President of the Nebraska Council of School Attorneys. She became a founding member of Education Rights Counsel in 2017, building the expertise of ERC’s alliance of education advocates.
Misty is a member of the Santee Sioux Nation of Nebraska and a descendant of the Tlingit of Alaska. She is currently the Executive Director of the Nebraska Indian Child Welfare Coalition (NICWC) an Indigenous led non-profit organization. She has previous experience as the Director of the Dakota Tiwahe Service Unit, the Social Services Department for the Santee Sioux Nation where she administered various programs including Child and Adult Protective Services.
Angela Gebhardt,MFS, MSW
Angela has extensive experience working in the field of domestic violence for the previous 20 years. She currently trains new Child and Family Service Specialists on how to work with families experiencing domestic violence and has previously trained new specialists on human trafficking. In addition to sitting on various related boards and taskforces, she has led various domestic violence and sexual assault support groups.
Alicia has extensive prosecution experience through both the Lancaster County Attorney’s Juvenile Division where she served as Chief Deputy, in addition to her time as a clinical professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law in the Criminal Prosecution clinic. She is also trained in Reflective Practice and has served as a consultant.
Christine Henningsen,JD, MPA
Christine is an Associate Director at the University of Nebraska’s Center on Children, Families, and the Law. Her areas of experience and expertise include representing immigrant survivors of domestic violence, representing tenants in fair housing and eviction cases, and serving as a Public Defender in Douglas County, primarily in Juvenile Court.
Jill Holt,MSW, MPA
Jill served as the Assistant Director of the Nebraska Indian Child Welfare Coalition (NICWC) for two years before transitioning to the Training and Education Director position in July 2021. She has more than thirteen years of experience with ICWA compliance through roles as a tribal ICWA specialist and ICWA Program Coordinator.
April Kirkendall is a staff attorney with Legal Aid of Nebraska. She currently leads the UPLIFT Project, a community lawyering collaboration. April also has extensive experience representing parents and children in Juvenile court.
Tom Maxson,LIMHP, LADC, SAP, MAC
Tom is an independent mental health practitioner, alcohol and drug counselor and as a psychological assistant. He has over 20 years of experience providing individual and family therapy in addition to substance use, mental health and co-occurring evaluations.
Jordan is a Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner who spent 8 years working with children, adolescents, and families. She also teaches Circle of Security classes for parents, teachers, and other professionals.
Lauren Micek Vargas,JD
Lauren began her career as a special education teacher and development coach in New York City before attending law school. She then worked as a Public Defender Douglas County in the areas of juvenile law and public defense before becoming a founding member of Education Rights Counsel.
Lindsey Ondrak,MA, LIMHP, LPC
Lindsey is the Early Childhood Mental Health Outreach and Training Specialist at the University of Nebraska’s Center on Children, Families, and the Law. She is a Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner and Licensed Professional Counselor providing outpatient treatment for children and their families with specialized training in trauma and attachment.
Amy is an attorney with a private practice located in Lincoln, Nebraska. In addition to serving as a court-appointed Guardian ad Litem in juvenile court, Ms. Peters also works as a consultant Legal Trainer at the CCFL, where she assists with legal training for newly hired Child and Family Services Specialists. She has also served as a Public Defender in Lancaster County, and a Staff Attorney in the Child Welfare Program at Nebraska Appleseed.
Jen Rine,MS, LIMHP, PLADC
Jen is a therapist and owner of Bloom Counseling, LLC, where she specializes in trauma and mental health services for adolescents and adults. She has previous experience as an Intensive Family Preservation Therapist and a Family Violence Specialist/Advocate.
Jonathan is the managing attorney of Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Native American Program. Jonathan has extensive experience representing clients at the intersection of poverty, race, and Indian law, including in the Omaha, Ponca, Santee Sioux, and Winnebago Tribal Courts as well as in Nebraska State Courts.
Cheryl Tuner,MA, LIMHP, LPC
Cheryl is a trauma and attachment therapist who has worked with children, adolescents, families, and adults within the Lincoln Community for the past 22 years. She is employed at the University of Nebraska’s Center on Children, Families, and the Law as a training specialist and provides training to Child and Family Services Specialists, public and private school systems, law enforcement, corrections, general audiences at a local, regional, and national level, and is a certified Adult and Youth Mental Health First Aid instructor.