This month, Staff Attorney Jordan Bates is celebrating 10 years at Youth, Rights & Justice. Jordan, a Portland native, shared her thoughts on how her community and the world of public defense has changed since she first started at YRJ.
What first led you to this work? Why did you choose juvenile defense?
Juvenile law, really delinquency law, is something I’ve been drawn to for a long time. I did family law for a year and a half after law school but I had volunteered at YRJ for a summer while I was in college. I knew I wanted to come back to juvenile law one day. I became interested in juvenile law because growing up, I saw a huge disparity in how I was treated vs. other kids. I was fortunate, but lots of others did not get the same benefit. I saw a lot of inequality in how people my age were treated based on race, background, family dynamic, and things like that.
What was most surprising to you, when you first started doing this work?
Learning about the way the child welfare system works. I was not familiar with the complexity of juvenile courts, foster care, and individuals’ rights to have a say within this system before I started practicing juvenile law. Learning about how the system worked and also looking at dependency through a different lens changed my perspective. Parents and kids have a right to live together as a family, and seeing how and when the state chose to intervene was eye-opening. A lot of people see foster care as a necessity, but I believe our society needs to reflect on what can be done to prevent placement in foster care in the first place and focus on how to help all of those involved.
What inspires you? What motivates you?
I do this work so I can help people who enter the child welfare and delinquency systems fight for their rights. Many times, clients are facing several different people who are telling them what is wrong and what needs to change. I am motivated by being able to listen to them and use my training to help share their concerns and their perspectives within these systems. Many clients are dealing with racism, poverty, mental health, and addition issues, and are often discounted because of that. I think a lot of people feel alone and I am motived by being their ally and use the tools I’ve gained in training as an attorney to advocate for them in court. For every client, my goal is to listen to them and to try and share their goals while making sure their rights are respected.
How have things changed during your career? Do you see outcomes improving for our clients? What is the biggest challenge facing our clients?
I have seen changes. The most tangible change is in the representation and treatment of unaccompanied minors, (kids coming alone to the U.S. from other countries). Portland has three immigration detention facilities for children, and our office works with the young people in those facilities if their circumstances warrant juvenile court jurisdiction. When I first started there were very few of these cases, and we received a lot of push back from juvenile system, questioning whether the juvenile court was the right place for these kids. Over time, as we’ve represented more of these children, we’ve educated ourselves, the bench, and the state and really demonstrated that these kids need help. Over the last ten years, we really have created a decent partnership with system partners—people have come together to support these kids and find better solutions.
Systemic racism and lack of community resources are two of the biggest challenges facing our clients. I believe it’s difficult for people in positions of power to consider how to change a system from within, when it’s worked a certain way for such a long time. I don’t except myself from this critique, but think it’s important to recognize it in order to change it. By representing children, parents and youth, as defense attorneys we are forced to look at the juvenile system from multiple perspectives. In order to change our system to eradicate racism and offer more comprehensive services to help the people involved, we all need to come together and change our thinking.
What would you tell a new lawyer, just starting out? Or someone who is considering public defense as a career?
Make sure this work is something you care about. Know your boundaries when it comes to balancing work and care for clients with your home life and care for your family. Work hard. Care about your clients. But know there is only so much you can do as an attorney. You are not a therapist or social worker, and trying to fill all shoes is not realistic (nor are you trained for it). But as a lawyer, you’ve gone to law school and you’ve got the tools to help advocate and support clients in a specific way. Play to that strength.
What made you choose YRJ? What makes it special?
I chose YRJ because there are great resources here, we have a good culture and a great environment for mentoring young attorneys. It’s a great place for a new lawyer to learn and practice law. We have lots of great support staff, and a good team environment. I appreciate that YRJ is here to both support individual people in these systems and to improve them on a larger scale.
Do you have any goals, hopes or wishes for the future of public defense?
I hope that the child welfare and the juvenile delinquency systems can improve. I don’t expect they’ll disappear in any way during the time I’ll be an attorney, but I do believe that there are better ways that system partners can work together. I want all of us involved (Defense, the State, DHS, the Juvenile Department) to be able to change perspectives and figure out how to better serve those families and children that are involved. Ultimately, I hope our work as public defenders will help lead to fewer community members entrenched in these systems.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.