The disproportionate number of minority children navigating juvenile justice systems continues to be a point of great concern in our country. Where does this problem start? Is it in schools, in over-policed minority neighborhoods, or even in homes? What other factors are at play? Putting an end to the injustices suffered by children of color means understanding how present circumstances have put them at risk. ABA Law Student Podcast host Meg Steenburgh talks through these issues with Natasha Fortune, assistant attorney in charge at the Legal Aid Society of New York in the Juvenile Rights Practice. Ms. Fortune discusses her work and clientele in the Juvenile Rights Practice and offers insights on the steps, both large and small, that can be taken to disrupt unjust cycles and create lasting positive change.
Natasha M. Fortune is assistant attorney in charge at the Legal Aid Society of New York in the Juvenile Rights Practice.
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ABA Law Student Podcast
Examining Racial Inequality in Juvenile Justice
Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast, where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads. From finals and graduation to the Bar exam and finding a job, this show is your trusted resource for the next big step.
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Meghan Steenburgh: Hello and welcome to another edition of the ABA Law Student Podcast. I am Meghan Steenburgh, a 1L in Syracuse University’s College of Law, JDi program. I am also a graduate of Georgetown University and have a Master’s from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications.
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We are honored to have with us today, Natasha M. Fortune. Ms. Fortune is currently an is assistant attorney in charge at the Legal Aid Society of New York in the Juvenile Rights Practice. She supervises a team of attorneys, serves as defense counsel in juvenile delinquency proceedings, and also represents children in abuse, neglect, and custody proceedings in family court. Ms. Fortune serves as a mentor to interns of color, is a member of the hiring/screening committee, and supervises interns from the NYU School of Law Juvenile Defenders Clinic.
Her commitment to serving the public goes beyond the courtroom, and she frequently volunteers assist Project Window, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering young girls by building their self-confidence and providing them with mentorship and life skills. Additionally, Ms. Fortune is a certified tax preparer and owned a tax franchise.
She received her B.S. in computer science in St. John’s University and her J.D. at St. John’s University School of Law.
Ms. Fortune, thank you for joining us today.
Natasha M. Fortune: Thank you so much for having me.
Meghan Steenburgh: Let’s start with your present job. Assistant attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society of New York in the Juvenile Rights Practice. Who are your clients and what types of issues do you see?
Natasha M. Fortune: Well at the Legal Aid Society in the Juvenile Rights Practice, we represent children that are alleged to be abused and/or neglected. We also represent children in PINS cases, person in need of supervision and we represent children in juvenile
delinquency proceedings. Children that have been arrested and I primarily do juvenile delinquency cases.
Meghan Steenburgh: And how did you decide to head down this path of service?
Natasha M. Fortune: Well, I attended St. John’s University School of Law and upon entering law school I had no idea that this area of law existed at all and my second summer instead of interning, I decided to do a study abroad program in South Africa through Howard University School of Law. When I came back in the fall, I felt like I needed to sort of make up for the summer that I missed and so I decided to apply for a clinic. I was looking at my options of what could I apply to and the child advocacy clinic appealed to me because I didn’t know that you could represent children in any capacity and so I applied. I interviewed and that is what sort of sparked my interest in this area of law.
Meghan Steenburgh: So children in court, what are the parameters, the age, the reason, how does a child find him or herself in court and at what age can they find themselves in court?
Natasha M. Fortune: Well, on juvenile delinquency proceedings, children who get arrested in New York can actually be arrested at the age of seven years’ old, which is, yes it’s insane, that at seven you could actually be handcuffed and detained but that is currently the law in New York and we represent children up until 17 years old, and so right now there’s actually a bill on the senate floor to raise the minimum age from 7 to 12. So we’re hoping that happens and recently, actually the law changed what’s called the “Raise the Age Act” but prior to that change in the law in 2016, children were considered adults in New York at the age of 16.
With Raise the Age, now children who are 16 and 17 in charged with misdemeanors can go directly to family court and if they’re charged with felonies, they start in criminal court and adult court. However, they have the opportunity to go to family court.
Meghan Steenburgh: And so what stage do they reach out to you and how do they reach out to you?
Natasha M. Fortune: We are assigned by the court, children in New York and Juvenile Delinquency Proceedings are entitled to representation, and so once a case has been filed that’s when we get involved and we’re assigned by the court.
Meghan Steenburgh: So this conversation is also about race
and the racial injustices from the classroom to the courtroom?
How do you see race influencing? What you see as an attorney?
Natasha M. Fortune: Well, I mean, I think as we all know there’s completely disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system and so race is really at every stage of that proceeding from the time the arrest is happening to meeting with the Department of Probation, to having the case filed by the prosecutor and then the court proceedings race plays a role in all of that.
Meghan Steenburgh: How have you seen that? So if you start — if you say, okay in the school or where it begins, how do you see race playing that role through your stories and through your eyes?
Natasha M. Fortune: One thing that I think really contributes to that disproportionate minority representation in the juvenile justice system is the fact that there is over policing in neighborhoods that are predominantly, neighborhoods with people of color that there is significant police presence in those schools and so minor infractions that could be solved with intervention from school officials, now the police are called in or they’re already present.
Meghan Steenburgh: Do you see a lot of it beginning in the schools or do you do you see it – I would imagine it’s hard, it’s so cyclical to understand or to even know where it begins? Whether it begins at home or in the school system or where the prejudices begin for those you represent.
Natasha M. Fortune: A lot of it does begin in school. I mean, even when we’re talking about the younger children. You see children of color getting suspended more, getting expelled more and it’s begins from a very young age and continues on. I would also say, obviously the neighborhood peer interaction, what’s happening at home obviously, is of great concern, lack of services in the community, in the schools, lack of education for those that are working with people of color and youth. So there are several things that
contribute to that disparity.
Meghan Steenburgh: So they go from school and the over policing of the school, they end up in the court system and at some point, if they see that it is a matter of a necessity in this world, how do you — is there a way that you then step in and say, this isn’t about this individual stealing to steal. This is about an individual who hasn’t eaten and is looking for support or is that part of your role and how and when can you step in to clarify some of these things too and to help.
Natasha M. Fortune: Absolutely, any chance that we get to really tell the story of our clients, we take that opportunity. So if that is through trial, then that’s what we’ll do. If that is, let’s say that the child is found guilty which we call a finding in family court. Let’s say, there is a finding against that child and the judge has decided that yes, they have done what is alleged to have been done. Then, they meet with the Department of Probation and that gives them the opportunity and we get to speak to them beforehand to really talk about what is happening in their life.
So they will be asked questions about their functioning at home, school suspensions, they’ll be asked about their friends, they’ll be asked about any drugs or alcohol or any abuse that’s happened in the past. So to just to get a clear picture of this child’s life as a whole, they’re not just this one incident that happened and so that’s where you really get to tell your story so people can understand that, okay, yes this happened but these are the things happening in the background that have kind of led this particular child there.
Meghan Steenburgh: Well, let’s touch upon some of those in the more recent headlines, so have you seen a change through black lives matter, and is there a greater sense of awareness of these biases or have you seen anything at all change as a result of some of the recognition of these movements and the movements growing, especially this year?
Natasha M. Fortune: I definitely feel that there has been such a push for people to educate themselves. To realize what exactly is happening with people of color, with black people. I think that when it comes to employment and schools and diversity and equity is such a prominent thing now. I definitely feel that there is a push in every way for equality, but the biggest thing I think is people really taking the time to educate themselves and recognizing those unconscious biases, and how they play a role in their everyday lives, at work with their colleagues, with their clients, yeah.
Meghan Steenburgh: Have you seen bias in the courtroom? Right now, we’ll get to law school later, but like right now, as an attorney do you see bias yourself?
Natasha M. Fortune: I have definitely experienced bias myself. There have been instances where I go into the courtroom and it’s thought that I’m automatically the caseworker as opposed to the attorney or I have been sitting with my client or my client and their parents and someone assumes that I am either the caseworker or part of the family. There’s no way that I would be the attorney on the case or walking into court going into the same courtroom, the same courthouse every day and being asked for my identification, when others are not being asked for their identification every day. And so, it absolutely happens in work settings, in the courthouse quite often, too often.
Meghan Steenburgh: Yeah, we’re going to take a quick break and we’ll be right back with Natasha Fortune.
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And we’re back with Natasha Fortune. And let’s talk about the pandemic and how has that influenced who you see? And some of the situations that you see with regard to your clients? Do you see more needs, fewer services, increased arrests, fewer arrests? How has the pandemic influenced your job?
Natasha M. Fortune: In terms of arrest, we actually have seen fewer arrests or the arrests are happening, but everyone — I would have to say, is sort of working together to do what they can to have those children released instead of sending them to detention. So that has been a big change during this period. In addition to that, as soon as things were shutting down, there was a big push to get kids out of detention if they were already in detention. So that was, I mean as positive as you can have from the situation, but there were those changes.
In terms of services, service providers have done a pretty good job of continuing to provide services, virtually which is the best they can do at this point. However, there’s still access to services. Probably, the biggest issue is access to technology. So while the services might be available and they’re available virtually. Not everyone has a cellphone or a computer or Wi-Fi and so that is probably the biggest obstacle and one of the consequences of the pandemic. We’ve also seen just an uptick in family offense cases, everyone’s stuck in the house together so we’ve definitely seen an uptick in those cases, but those children primarily do go back home and if services are necessary then we try to put services in place.
Meghan Steenburgh: Okay. So lawyers are problem-solvers, and how can we — and how are you working to correct these racial injustices? I mean, you spoke about the over policing. How do you correct that? How do you — in the community, in the school, how do
you begin to fix the problems?
Natasha M. Fortune: Every little bit counts. So providing mentorship or workshops. Those are some of the things that I’ve done personally to try to combat that. There is a very big push, I would say right now especially in New York and everywhere, really to change the criminal justice system period and so I think once those conversations are happening and like I spoke about the bill that’s on the senate floor right now. But really, just putting yourself in spaces where you can be heard, in spaces where you can have leadership positions so in particular, in the juvenile justice system that could mean, maybe you want to become a judge in order to effectuate change that way or perhaps you want to work with the Department of Probation and help shift culture and change.
They have a lot of decision-making power when it comes to our youth. I think, there are just several ways to make change and collectively, yes I think that we can get to a point where there is sustainable long-lasting change.
Meghan Steenburgh: Well, as you mentioned you mentor and you’re certainly a role model for so many — yourselves and to see you in the courtroom and helping has – I know, has got to be very inspiring. How did you choose to go to law school? What kind of access did you have and who were your mentors to inspire you to go?
Natasha M. Fortune: I would have to say my role models have been my family. My mother and my sister and father, but my – I have one older sister and education has just been very important like growing up. You knew, that you had to — you have to go to school. So no one ever pushed me to specifically become an attorney, but it was clear that for me, anyway that education was going to be the pathway. And so early on, I decided I wanted to be an attorney. I was a bit discouraged by a guidance counselor and decided that I would just – I just picked computer science as a major. I’m like, well computers are nice I’ll try that and so I did that and I did well, but I was not happy and knew that this is not what I want to do.
By junior year, I knew that this is not what I want to do forever. In senior year, I took a business law class and the professor was an attorney and that was it for me. I took her class, the first and second semester of that year and decided that, I was going to apply to law school the following year. I had some good conversations with her and she was very –I guess I would consider her a role model as well that she sorts of reignited that desire for me to attend law school.
Meghan Steenburgh: It sounds like that belief in you. That you didn’t receive from your guidance counselor.
Natasha M. Fortune: Yes.
Meghan Steenburgh: That had been very motivating.
Natasha M. Fortune: Absolutely.
Meghan Steenburgh: How about the experience itself? Did you feel the experience of law school itself? Did you feel as though it was different as a woman of color?
Natasha M. Fortune: I definitely feel there were times – well, first, I should say that there were not very many people of color in my class. My section, maybe there were – I would say, maybe five of us perhaps a few more. There were just definitely times, I suffered from imposter syndrome. Kind of wondering how did I get here? Am I supposed to be here? But you fight through those moments and you have strong support systems. I found a very strong support system in the Black Law Student’s Association. And made really lifelong friends in my section. So those assisted me, but I think, just being able to find my voice and make sure that I’m seen and make sure that I’m heard. Then, those were things that I struggled with during law school.
Meghan Steenburgh: What would you be your advice now, to minorities in law school?
Natasha M. Fortune: I would definitely tell them to find a mentor. I did not do that, just because I didn’t know on the importance of having one. So, I would definitely find a mentor, I would know the difference between having a mentor and an advocate. Someone who can really present you with options and opportunities. I would make sure they remind themselves if they are having those moments of imposter syndrome that remind themselves that they earned it. They worked to get there, so don’t doubt yourself and push past those moments.
Meghan Steenburgh: How about for everyone else in the classroom? And not only in the classroom but as they move out into the world. If you could say one thing, what would it be? Or many things.
Natasha M. Fortune: I would tell them to really take the time to do some self-reflection because we all have unconscious biases, and I feel like you say that and people are like, “Oh no. Not me. That there’s no way that I could have any sort of unconscious bias.” But we do, we all have them and they bleed into our home life, work life, how you raise your children? How you deal with your colleagues, your clients, your witnesses? If you’re a litigator, even jury selection it affects everything. Once you take the time, I think to recognize them and really sort of identify them, then you can work on overcoming them. And I think that’s really important.
Meghan Steenburgh: Do you find yourself providing hope and guidance to your clients? Do you find yourself in that role of not only protecting them in this very vulnerable moment but also looking ahead and saying, “Hey, here’s how we get you on the right path?”
Natasha M. Fortune: Absolutely. I mean, it’s hard because you’re just like one little tiny piece in this one moment of this child’s life.
But you definitely, try to encourage them. Speak life into them. Especially, if they’re not getting that at home, which oftentimes they are not. Just to let them know that there are people who want to help you, that you are capable of doing whatever it is that you want to do. That you’re not your circumstances. I try. I definitely try. And you have those times where you feel like there’s nothing you can do is going to make this better or make a life better for this person and then, you have those moments where you did really impact someone, and those are the moments that just keep you going.
Meghan Steenburgh: So for those clients and for those in the classroom and those in the courtroom, on either end as an attorney or as a client, do you think there ever be a level playing field?
Natasha M. Fortune: I would like to think so. I’m a bit of an optimist so I would like to think that there will be a level playing field one day. I don’t want to let cynicism take over. And there’s progress. It might be slow progress, however there is progress so I hope that bill gets passed, that raises the age and there are committees in the state working on the juvenile justice system. I mean, like I said that there’s progress. It’s slow but there’s progress and I believe that one day that that can happen. I don’t know about in my lifetime, but we’ll see.
Meghan Steenburgh: Well, looking at you and listening to you, you are clearly passionate and seem to have found your calling. Is this your calling? Do you wish that you had gone a different path or do you still see yourself going on a different path as an attorney down the road?
Natasha M. Fortune: I really don’t see a path outside of serving my community. I went into law school thinking that I was going to do real estate, corporate or entertainment law. That was the plan and clearly did not go that way. It’s been 12 years so no, I definitely don’t see a way out of it and a path outside of it and I tried to – I don’t want it to be just about work for me. So, I try to do things outside of work like Project Window that you mentioned to continue to engage and just serve.
Meghan Steenburgh: Well, thank you for that service. Thank you for this conversation. Your time is so appreciative and appreciated. And thank you for speaking with me today. It’s an absolute honor and good luck as you continue to help, really truly such a vulnerable population.
Natasha M. Fortune: Thank you so much for having me.
Meghan Steenburgh: And thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Law Student Podcast. I would like to invite you to subscribe to the ABA Law Student Podcast on Apple Podcase.
You can reach us on Facebook @abaforlawstudents and on Twitter @abalsd. That’s it for now. I’m Meghan Steenburgh, thank you for listening.
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