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
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
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,"
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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,
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
"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
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
"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."