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Alumna works on behalf of children, institutionalized people
After spending time in Los Angeles teaching elementary school students in under-resourced communities as part of Teach For America, Lori Turner ’06 knew she wanted to make a larger impact on children’s lives.
“The teaching experience was the impetus for me to go to law school,” Turner said. “Through that experience, I knew I wanted to work on issues related to improving public education.”
Teach For America is an independent nonprofit organization created in 1991 to target overachieving, highly motivated college students. It is highly competitive and prestigious, as only about 12 percent of applicants are accepted. Members in TFA work in poverty-stricken areas to help children in these areas receive a better education.
Turner taught five years in L.A. from 1998-2003, despite only being required to complete a two-year term. She began considering law school as a way to work on policies to improve educational outcomes for public-school children.
However, once in law school, Turner was unsure of what kind of children’s advocacy jobs were available. By chance, Turner’s first Civil Procedure course at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law was taught by Professor Daniel Tokaji, who had come from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The group had brought a statewide civil rights class-action lawsuit on behalf of public school students demanding better teachers, textbooks, and facilities.
“I had a conversation with (Tokaji) early in the semester, and he told me I should check out this kind of work and put me in touch with one of the lead attorneys on the groundbreaking case,” Turner said.
Following her first year at Moritz, Turner got an internship with the ACLU of Southern California. During her time there, Turner said she began seeing how a law degree could be used for social change and the various issues in the community she had come from in L.A.
“I was exposed to the institutional reform litigation model,” Turner said. “I got really excited about that and worked with really high-caliber people out there.”
Following her second year at Moritz, Turner said she wanted to get involved in working directly with children again and began work with a family court in the Bronx, N.Y. There, she dealt with dependency court and the child welfare system.
“I worked with kids that had a lot of the same public education issues, but were also dealing with family court issues,” Turner explained. “So I really got interested and involved in those issues as well.”
That same summer, the ACLU of Illinois was looking for a fellow to work on education issues for their clients in the child welfare system. With the help of the career services at Ohio State, Turner applied for and was given a two-year Equal Justice Works Fellowship that would continue after her graduation from Moritz in 2006.
Equal Justice Works is a nonprofit organization that offers training opportunities for law students and lawyers to enable them to provide effective representation to underserved communities and causes.
“It was the perfect marriage of my interests working to improve educational outcomes for children in the child welfare system in Illinois. It worked out, luckily,” Turner said. “A lot of stars needed to be aligned.”
The fellowship helped Turner get her foot in the door at the ACLU of Illinois, and she has been there ever since. She currently serves as a staff attorney for the Roger Baldwin Foundation of the ACLU of Illinois, where she works with the Children’s Initiative and the Institutionalized Persons Project.
With the Children’s Initiative, Turner has focused on improving educational outcomes for children in foster care by assuring access to adequate and stable education while providing appropriate mental health care services as well.
Turner said that one of the biggest challenges the children face is dealing with changing foster homes.
“That mobility means that they are in and out of school a lot, behind in grade level, and have discipline issues related to being out of school a lot, including involvement in the juvenile justice system,” Turner explained.
She said school stability and academic success can have a profound impact on the children.
“One of the reasons I focused on school and education is we see it as a great stabilizer for these kids,” Turner said. “If they experience consistency and continuity in the school environment, even if they are behind academically, overall they have better outcomes in the long run.”
As part of the Institutionalized Persons Project, Turner represents adults with disabilities in nursing homes who are kept in a segregated setting. She was recently part of a class-action lawsuit that gave 4,500 disabled persons the ability to move into a community setting of their choice, her proudest achievement.
“Knowing that 4,500 people were going to have the choice to move out of these restrictive nursing homes, which ranged from cold and institutional to actually abusive … that’s been an amazing thing to be part of,” Turner said. “I have visited with our named plaintiffs in the suit, and it’s really rewarding to see them in their own homes doing things that we all want to do.”
Turner plans to stay with the Roger Baldwin Foundation of the ACLU of Illinois, working with the Children’s Initiative so she can continue to help the children.
“I’m always charmed by them,” Turner said. “These are really resilient, intelligent kids who could have a bright future if we hold up our end of the bargain and help them get the support and services they need to be successful young people.”
This article was written by Jay Clouse.