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Jan. 18, 2007 • Volume 15 Number 9

Adj. Assoc. Prof. Francine Sherman

A Staunch Advocate

For more than a decade, Francine Sherman has fought to make the justice system work better for juveniles

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

If there was ever someone whose life appeared beyond hope or redemption, it was the young woman known as "Client Z," says Adj. Assoc. Prof. Francine Sherman (Law).

Born to a mother who was a drug addict and prostitute, "Z" was separated from her siblings and dropped out of school after the sixth grade. She got pregnant, only to lose her baby after a boyfriend assaulted her, and spent most of her teenage years in and out of juvenile custody, recalls Sherman.

But her unstable upbringing did not stop "Z" from turning her life around.

"She was always curious, she always wanted to read books and it was obvious that she was bright," says Sherman.

"Z" scored top marks on a high school equivalency test, and, with the support of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services she eventually enrolled in a degree program at a public university.

"It goes to show you what you can accomplish with a little help and some motivation," says Sherman, founding director of BC Law School's Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project (JRAP) that represented "Z" for many years and worked both inside and outside the legal system to help her.

"When you have people constantly telling you that you're worthless you eventually believe it. We work to show these kids that they're not."

"Z," whose name is kept secret to protect her identity, is one of many dozens of young people who have been aided by Sherman and JRAP since its inception in 1994. JRAP is a curricular-based legal clinic providing comprehensive representation and policy advocacy to youth, and particularly to girls, in the juvenile justice system. Sherman, two supervising attorneys, and second and third year law students staff the program.

JRAP was Sherman's brainchild, the outgrowth of a decade of law practice following her graduation from BC Law in 1980.

For Sherman, the years spent fighting for at-risk girls like "Z" have brought hard-won satisfaction. At the same time, Sherman has developed some disdain for what she says is an unforgiving justice system that sometimes acts based on faulty policy and, in doing so, fails to serve the young people for which it is responsible.

But when she talks about her research and programming initiatives, Sherman, a mother of three who is married to attorney Scott Tucker, JD '78, does not sound bitter or jaded. As long as there are success stories like that of "Z" - and there are many, Sherman says - the fight is worth it.

"The system needs to get better at letting the good stuff in these kids develop," says Sherman. "These young women have many different types of intelligences and can be quite savvy and you have to learn to work with them. They can't be immediately discounted because they are lacking formal education."

"I am a big fan of Fran Sherman and this program for all they do," says Middlesex County Juvenile Court Judge Jay D. Blitzman, who has known Sherman for more than 15 years.

JRAP is important, Blitzman says, because the attorneys and students involved have gone well beyond simply representing clients, engaging families and home life situations to the point where they can take into account all the troubling issues in at-risk girl's life.

"It's clear that they care, they're involved and they're engaged," he says. "While our probation officers don't know the name 'JRAP' they are always requesting 'that BC program' for their cases."

Sherman works with BC Law students involved with the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Program (JRAP). "She has boundless energy and was very enthusiastic about our work," says a former JRAP participant.

Blitzman adds that JRAP has developed an esteemed reputation in the Lowell courtroom in which he presides with two other judges. Over the years, Lowell's Cambodian population has exploded and various language and cultural issues have put some stress on the city's courts. Sherman and her associates have exceeded expectations and proven that the sort of attention JRAP offers its clients can transcend those cultural barriers.

"They have a powerful presence when they walk in to the courtroom," Blitzman said.

Besides advocating for delinquent girls, and helping to create and research programs to assist them, Sherman has done her part to inspire and mentor a number of BC Law students who have gone on to make their own mark as juvenile advocate attorneys.

"I think it's pivotal to have Fran at the Law School as a mentor and teacher to all these students who want to get into public interest law," says Barbara Kaban, JD '98, assistant director of the Children's Law Center in Lynn.

"There aren't many people who are doing this type of work and her successes have been incredibly important."

Vincent Herman, JD '04, now a staff attorney at the Children's Law Center in Washington, DC, thinks that Sherman's place in the field of juvenile advocacy plays a critical role that forms a bridge between theory and practice.

"There's a gap between the everyday work of a public interest lawyer and academic big picture thinking and she fills that," said Herman.

Missouri to Massachusetts

Sherman may move comfortably in the Greater Boston legal environment, but her roots are considerably further west. She was born and raised in Missouri and did not travel far when it came time to go to college, attending the University of Missouri. Still, Sherman felt a calling: "I came out of college in the 1970s when a lot of things were changing and I wanted to be a part of that."

Among her influences, two stand out for Sherman: One is her father, a professor who studied the psychology of policewomen, which included topics like domestic violence and other issues. "I think there was a piece of his work that I was really interested in."

The other was Rev. Robert Drinan, SJ, widely known for his work as a human rights activist and, briefly, as a Massachusetts congressman, but also for his role in shaping the BC Law School, where he served as dean from 1956-70.

"He inspired me and I was very attracted to BC's social justice mission," says Sherman. "That was why I came here."

Sherman found her niche in public interest law and after graduating from BC Law went to work for the Department of Social Services, where she began to cultivate her interest in juvenile advocacy.

Clearly, says Sherman, the kids she and her colleagues encounter are not perfect angels, but neither are they lost souls: "They have a lot more resilience than a lot of people think."

The root causes for most of these juvenile offenders' problems may constitute a familiar refrain - poverty, illegal drugs and troubled family situations - but that doesn't make them any less virulent, she says. Unfortunately, these are compounded by a justice system that, however one may wish otherwise, is influenced by social, economic and racial characteristics, according to Sherman: Minor offenses that earn you jail time in one community aren't even considered crimes in another.

"In Newton when girls get in a fight, it's seen as a behavioral issue - but in city neighborhoods it's seen as criminal assault," she explains. "Is that fair?

"The number of serious violent crimes is actually very small. But you wouldn't know it considering the media attention that it gets."

The 'Super Predator' myth

Sherman claims that particularly egregious examples of policy failure in juvenile justice can be seen in the 1990s when police departments and prosecutors across the nation braced for a phenomenon known as the "Super Predator Theory," which held that that an amoral and ruthless generation of adolescents would cause a major crime spree within the nation's inner cities.

"That never happened," she says. "Sure, there were a few really scary cases, but those are the exception. But it scared people and so we are still dealing with a decade of bad criminal justice policies."

JRAP seeks to counter such negative trends, by using the legal system to access social and community services and hold public agencies accountable for juveniles, with the goal of reducing the use of incarceration and supporting the girls in their communities, says Sherman.

In addition to individual representation, JRAP is involved in ongoing research and policy advocacy to develop and model programs for delinquent youth. BC Law students interested in working with JRAP must sit for a juvenile advocacy seminar while they are working in the clinic. This affords them the opportunity to help manage programs and assist with legal representation before the courts, says Sherman.

Along the way Sherman has produced no shortage of scholarly papers on the topic of juvenile advocacy and public interest law. Her latest include the JRAP Guide, Medical Consent for Minors in Massachusetts Systems (published with JRAP staff and students), and Pathways to Detention Reform, Detention Reform for Girls: Challenges and Solutions, which was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Two additional papers on detention reform and gender and racial issues will be published in 2007.

When she's not in the classroom, courtroom, or lock-up facility, Sherman spends much of her time writing grants, raising money and working to help develop programs and partnerships in which JRAP law students and staff attorneys can make a difference. These programs are administered alongside the project's legal representation duties.

"She has boundless energy and was very enthusiastic about our work," said Herman, who served in JRAP for two years before graduating from BC Law.

Some of JRAP's current programs include the Girls Health Passport Project and The Massachusetts Health Passport Project, which connect youths committed to the Department of Youth Services (DYS) to community health care. The Jacob and Valeria Langeloth Foundation recently awarded Sherman funds to implement the Massachusetts Health Passport Project in collaboration with the DYS and community health centers.

"So many problems for these girls come from a lack of access to health care and part of it is because they don't trust the system," said Sherman. "If we put them in touch with health care providers that can help them we might solve a lot of problems."

Another unique JRAP program is HUMAN (Hear Us Make Artistic Noise), a design, graphic arts and entrepreneurship program which provides girls in DYS with an opportunity to document their lives and experiences using visual art. HUMAN operates in a DYS residential facility and the community so that girls who become involved in the art can continue their work when they are released. The girls also sell their art and take graphic arts assignments on commissioned work such as t-shirts, postcards and logos. The program recently won two years of additional funding from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

A testament to the program's success is one of its administrators, Minotte Romulus, 22 - who as a teenager landed in DYS custody after stealing a car.

Romulus credits the HUMAN program for helping to set her on different path, and away from the boredom, peer pressure and lack of positive attention she says contributes to juvenile crime. "I could never tell anyone how I was feeling or what I was thinking about. But putting it on paper made it easier. It's better for you to put your anger on paper than to act it out."

Where a few years ago Romulus could not have seen much in the way of a future for herself, now "I can see myself working as a graphic designer in five years."

Success in juvenile advocacy, Sherman says, comes from leaving conventional notions of legal representation behind and investing time to get to know the young person.

"You have to go beyond representation. You have to know them so you know what they need," she said. "And then you can stand up and defend them."

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