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Human Rights Fellow Vandenberg Advocates for Children’s Rights in Los Angeles


When a troubled 7th grader in Los Angeles leaves school during the day, goes to a nearby church with two classmates, and spray paints his name in a classroom, the community has to determine how to respond. This 12-year-old boy could be charged with a crime or the community can work to understand his troubles in these circumstances and redirect his energies with appropriate services. When law enforcement officials decided to charge him with a hate crime, the Alliance for Children’s Rights stepped in to advocate for appropriate services.

University of Minnesota law student Shelby Vandenberg received a 2009 Allen and Linda Saeks Human Rights and Public Interest Law Fellow from the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center so that she could intern with the Alliance and work on this boy’s case. As her supervising attorney and the public defender successfully advocated in court to get the hate crime dropped, Shelby worked with the school district to keep the student in school. She was able to persuade the school authorities that he should not be expelled from his school district, but rather should be given appropriate special education services. Instead of being sent to a juvenile detention camp, this young man was able to start at a new school with the appropriate level of services and supervision for his disability.

Shelby previously worked in Special Education and has been involved with the Special Education Law Clinic at the University of Minnesota. She spent her fellowship term with the Alliance for Children’s Rights, a non-profit legal services agency, dedicated to protecting the rights and futures of abused and impoverished children in Los Angeles County. The Alliance takes a holistic approach toward their clients.  If a client is seeking public benefits assistance, the Alliance will make sure that she or he is also receiving adequate healthcare, education, and other services.

The Alliance serves children living in poverty, both in and out of the foster care system. Many of Shelby’s clients this summer were children who were currently in foster care as Los Angeles County has the largest foster care system in the country. Shelby dove energetically into her work and her clients’ cases. She said about foster care in America, “With such high caseloads and a lack of time and resources, it’s too easy for kids to slip between the cracks.”

But organizations like the Alliance for Children’s Rights compensate for the very rough terrain in this difficult field. “I am encouraged by the people at the Alliance,” Shelby concluded, “because the attorneys and volunteers are dedicated to their cases and have the resources to produce high quality work.” The Saeks Human Rights and Public Interest Law Fellowship and the related Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellowship at the University of Minnesota provided the Alliance some of those much needed resources. Placing dedicated volunteers like Shelby with organizations like the Alliance, this Fellowship program supports vital work for the public interest. Encouraged by the success of a child diverted from juvenile detention to an appropriate special education program, Shelby and the Alliance will continue to push for improvements in the lives of children living in poverty.



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