UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – During the past academic year, students in the Penn State Family Law Clinic at Penn State Law in University Park worked on several educational programs to inform existing and potential clients and other local stakeholders about different aspects of family law.
Family Law Clinic students prepared a “Grandparents and Child Custody in Pennsylvania” brochure for a local non-profit organization that provides support and resources for grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. The brochure educates grandparents about their rights, and what courts consider when making a custody determination, emergency custody, and adoption.
According to a fact sheet prepared by the Bucks County’s Drug and Alcohol Commission for grandparents in Pennsylvania, 195,216 children – which is 7.2% of children under age 18 in the state – live with grandparents, and that number continues to grow each year. “Educating students about this societal issue and the legal barriers that grandparents face is an important mission of our Family Law Clinic,” said Susan Bardo, Clinic interim director. “We were grateful to be able to assist a local non-profit organization with this issue, and we hope to expand our outreach efforts to assist them in the upcoming academic year as well.”
Bardo plans to have Clinic law students review paperwork that grandparents are asked to file with a court to obtain third-party custody or visitation of their grandchildren. The students will be conducting research, reviewing statutes, and ensuring that the paperwork is current and effective for pro se filings.
Family Law Clinic staff attorney Tracy Ortega is a member of the Centre County Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force. During the pandemic, students in the Clinic performed research and gave a presentation to the task force on victims’ rights and protections when police are requesting telephone evidence from victims.
Bardo, Ortega, and their students also participated in an educational collaboration with the Penn State Law Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic, led by Associate Dean for Clinics and Experiential Learning Michele Vollmer, and engineering students of Sandra Allain, a professor of practice in the Penn State School of Engineering Design, Technology and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP) and a lecturer in law at Penn State Law. She has over 15 years of experience as a practicing attorney in intellectual property and technology transfer in both private practice and as in-house counsel. Vollmer and Allain’s students worked together in Spring 2021 as well.
Students in Allain’s Engineering 497 course, called “Design4Justice,” are tasked with creating innovative technical products that help to solve the access to justice gap in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, each year more than 30 million Americans encounter civil legal problems without the help of a lawyer. Allain created her course to teach students about this gap and how to help alleviate it. With grants from Penn State’s Teaching and Learning with Technology program, and the Penn State College of Engineering and Leonhard Center’s EMIT Academy, and its Entrepreneurial Mindset for Innovating Teaching program, and the support of industry partner, Youtopian, Allain and her students were able to use virtual reality (VR) technology and 360 video when collaborating with the Penn State Law clinics during the last academic year. The co-CEO of Youtopian is Penn State graduate Lisa Sibilia, and the Youtopian mission is to build custom Artificial Intelligence and eXtended Reality innovation solutions to change lives at scale.
Recent Penn State Law graduates Courtney Stevens, Jennifer Barker, Grace Ward, Melissa Johnston, and Alyssa Castronovo participated in the collaboration for the Family Law Clinic with engineering students in Allain’s Design4Justice course. The law students began by generally describing the types of legal and other issues their clients face in words and image montages so that all partners on the project empathized with the clients’ situations. Many clients of the Family Law Clinic are domestic abuse victims who cannot afford to pay an attorney for assistance. The Family Law Clinic does not charge lawyer fees for its services. The students from both courses brainstormed and vetted the ways in which technology innovations could assist the clinic’s clients.
Using the model in author Margaret Hagan’s Law By Design, Allain worked with her engineering students who designed a technological product that the clinic students and clients would want to use, that would improve their effectiveness, and close the clients’ access to justice problem. After empathizing with and defining the problem, the engineering students presented and then vetted several solution ideas with the law students and chose two. “I am very pleased with the work of my engineering students for the Family Law Clinic in Design4Justice. These students have no background in law but care about social justice, were eager to learn, and readily took on the steep learning curve to understand family law legal issues.”
The first solution for the Family Law Clinic was to record and narrate a 360 video of the local courtroom where clinic clients will appear before a family law judge to help clients to feel more comfortable before going to court, which can be intimidating for non-lawyers. Ortega was pleased with the outcome of the project and noted that “while we can explain to our clients what a courtroom will look like, this 360 video helps our clients to visualize the experience with much more clarity and accuracy. We don’t have to be concerned that our clients were not able to understand our description when we can share this 360 video with them.”
As a second solution, the engineering students worked with Youtopian to create a VR metaverse prototype and test it. For the Family Law Clinic clients, the VR metaverse replicated the clinic law office space and allowed clients waiting to meet with lawyers and students to enter the VR setting to get comfortable, learn about family law topics, and experience what their initial meeting with the clinic would be like virtually before experiencing it live.
Additionally, Allain and Sibilia co-hosted a Law, Policy, and Engineering Leadership Seminar at Penn State University that showcased the collaboration. When speaking at the seminar, Sibilia noted how eager she was to partner on the project and assist her alma mater’s students, and she emphasized that “the mission of Youtopian to be a leader in innovation naturally has strong roots in educating the next generation of engineers and innovators in technology. We were honored to be part of the Design4Justice course and we look forward to other collaborations with Penn State in the future.”