Sarah Biehl ’03: Big Plans to Help Chicago’s Teenagers
Sarah Biehl ’03 remembers that when she first went to law school, she told people that she wasn’t good with kids. In her third year of law school she was persuaded to take the Justice for Children Practicum. Only then did she discover that not only was she good with kids, but that working with kids would be the center of her career.
After reaching the end of grant funding for her pioneering high school legal clinic at North Lawndale College Preparatory Charter High School in Chicago, Sarah has been looking toward her next big project. Sarah was the founder and sole staff member of the drop-in high school clinic. Students could stop by her office (a converted supply closet) for free legal and practical advice. Sarah helped students navigate through many issues unique to minors, including resources available to teen mothers, the standards for emancipation from parents, how to get an order of protection in cases of domestic violence, how to resolve complex family situations, and options for homeless teens.
Working with the former principal of North Lawndale and several supervising attorneys at her current agency, the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago (LAF), Sarah has devised another ground-breaking idea for reaching out to Chicago’s teenagers. She wants to find a way to assist teenagers who aren’t necessarily attending school and who may be living on the streets.
Sarah’s plan is to create a new type of non-profit agency in the North Lawndale neighborhood where teenagers can receive any and all assistance they might need: “a free, comprehensive, accessible, multi-disciplinary, multi-faceted teen center,” she says. Sarah explains, “The center’s services would include legal services, health services, social services, GED programs, after-school programs, open gyms, and tutoring services. Chicago has youth centers that address the needs of younger children, but none that focus primarily on teenagers. Chicago also has agencies that provide each of these services, but they aren’t necessarily free and they’re not all in one place.”
Of the long-term nature of founding such a comprehensive center, Sarah says, “It’s important for me to have lofty ideals. If I ever get to the point where I think, ‘this is it, I’ve done everything I want to do,’ I will need to find a new career.”
Sarah recognizes that directing the legal program in an agency like the one she envisions will require her to gain more legal experience. So while she has already begun meeting with agency leaders in the city to get them thinking about her plan, she is concentrating on her duties as a LAF staff attorney. She is part of a special project providing representation to domestic violence victims in the western suburbs of Cook County. She says, “The other LAF attorneys have a wealth of knowledge about many different types of law, and there is so much I can learn from them about family law, housing, and public benefits.”
Sarah loves her work and says, “I find family law a very dynamic field, where there is no clear black and white rule for when the law should intervene.” Even though most of her clients are mothers who have been the victims of domestic violence, Sarah never loses her focus on the children involved and how the family turmoil affects them.
Running the North Lawndale legal clinic, Sarah saw firsthand how family turmoil affects kids. One sophomore girl came home from school to find that her family had moved out of their apartment and had not even left a note. Sarah helped the student apply to have her aunt be her legal guardian. She says, “These kids often have very few choices. For example, the options this particular student would have had would be to live on the streets, to live with a boyfriend, or to live with her aunt without a legal guardianship. The problem with not having the guardianship is that the aunt can’t sign permission slips or authorize medical care.”
As much as Sarah enjoyed working with individual students, her favorite part of running the North Lawndale legal clinic was the opportunity to teach students about the law. She taught a Street Law course, which she adapted from a course at Georgetown University Law School. Sarah explains, “I asked myself what someone growing up in the inner-city would need to know about the law, and how they could take action to help themselves and their family.”
Sarah arranged a mock trial competition, making up the facts of the case to be tried. Law students from Chicago Kent served as coaches to the teams, then participated in the competition as jury members and gave the students critiques afterward. Sarah says, “The number one issue that comes up in class is 4th Amendment search and seizure. The kids want to know if the police can come onto a porch and search them.” She had the students write skits that they would then perform for the class. One group would act out a police search and then the class would discuss the different choices the person could have made to protect his or her rights.
Having choices is a theme Sarah often returns to. She says, “I always tell the students that they may not have chosen this situation had they been asked, but they do have choices. I tell them they have control over how they’re going to react to the situation. They can learn how to protect their rights and stand up for themselves.” No matter what Sarah does in the future, she definitely plans on finding her way back to the classroom to teach. The law student who thought she wasn’t good with kids is working hard to improve the choices available to Chicago’s teenagers.
Classmates and friends wishing to get in touch with Sarah can email her