Known for her work defending children, Nikki Weisburd (also the mother of two RE students, Ryan Weisburd ‘24 and Hilary Weisburd ‘21) has been a senior attorney for the Child Advocacy Project as well as the pro bono coordinator for lawyers who represent some of the kids in dependency court since 2000, when she moved to Miami from a large law firm in Atlanta. Her career track did not exactly follow the “college, grad school, life” path that is so ingrained within our society as the norm; after graduating from college, she moved to Israel and eventually worked directly with Vice President Gore during the Clinton administration. Nowadays, abuse and neglect have become more frequently discussed topics; teenagers on social media often speak up about abuse they endured from their parents or other members of the community, and child abuse is so longer brushed aside as “part of discipline.” Ms. Weisburd plays a crucial role in ensuring that these children are not just removed from the abusive situation but have a real chance to turn their life around.
I spoke to Ms. Weisburd through a Zoom meeting recently, and we discussed the intricacies of dependency court, what she sees on a day-to-day basis, and how her work with abused, neglected, or abandoned teenagers has impacted her own life. Through her interview, she expressed how grateful she was for all that she has been granted throughout life, and how that gratitude is only increased by the things she sees every day. She emphasized the role privilege has played in her life, noting that “it’s not always about your hard work, you can get dropped into a life that’s just not really fair. Some people are born with a step ahead.”
What’s your official job title?
So my official title is Senior Attorney/Pro Bono Coordinator of the Child Advocacy Project of Dade Legal Aid in partnership with the Guardian ad Litem Program. It’s a very long title. It has the slash in there because I actually have two jobs at the same place.
So, what does any of that mean?
I represent the best interest of children living in foster care. I don’t represent what they necessarily want, I don’t represent what their parents want, I don’t represent what the state wants. I represent this concept of what is in their best interest, so I have to determine what that is, and that is what I have to present to the court. I like it to be what they want… I hope it to be what they want. So that’s my first job. My second job is when the court determines there needs to be the position of what the child wants presented to the court, they bring on a volunteer attorney from the community, usually someone we know, to state what the child wants. Since those lawyers don’t practice child or family law at all, I’m their mentor. I’m like their camp counselor. I recruit and train all those volunteers that will represent what the child wants.
These volunteers, do they have to have a relation to the child?
No, they don’t know the child at all. They are lawyers, and they are acting in the capacity as a lawyer. Whatever the child wants to say, that’s what the lawyer says. It can be people from different firms, people who don’t practice in this area at all but just want to do something nice. They come, and they represent them.
How do you even find these people? People who set aside so much of their time to do something nice.
It’s challenging. People want to give back, and they don’t know how, so I try to make it very easy for them by just having them call me every day and saying, “Here’s what’s happened in my case today, what should I do next?” People come to Legal Aid and they say they want to help, what can they do, and so the executive director puts them in contact with me, and I say, for example, “I have this new case with a child who was sex trafficked,” and then I go on with how they can help. I tell them that these kids need a voice and ask them if they want to be that voice. I hold their hand the whole length of the case, because it’s not what they are trained to do.
People, at least in my experience, tend to not understand the main big differences between the foster care system/juvenile court and the adult criminal justice system. What would you say are those big differences?
In criminal court, someone is there because they did something against the law. What I do is Dependency Court, which is totally different. This involves a child who has been abused, abandoned, or neglected; these are the three criteria. It comes to our attention, the situation is investigated, the child is most often removed from the home, and then the question of what happens to the child becomes our courthouse’s duty.
For the child to be removed from the household, does the abuser have to be the parent or could it be some sort of situation outside the home?
So, there’s a phrase called failure to protect. If a mom or dad is unable to protect the child either from the other parent, or very often, unfortunately, the mom’s boyfriend, or a wrongdoer in the community, if they are unable to protect the child, it is also a reason to take the child from the house. It might be temporary, and the goal is to have the child be reunified with the family. For the parents, there is something called a case plan, which lists tasks. The tasks might be going to take a parenting class, get drug rehab, and take anger management classes. If the parent does those things, the parent goes back to the court and says that they did all these things [followed their case plan]. Their lawyer will say that it’s time for the child to return home and for them to present a certificate that certifies they completed their case plan. Then the child may go back to live with them. If the child wants to go back and live with them, now that’s compelling. But if the child doesn’t, we have to figure out what else is going on there.
Would you say that kids want to go back to their parents more times than not?
I would say yes, but I don’t have statistically what that number is. And I have a very niche practice in that I only represent teenagers, so my teenagers for the most part do not. They’ve either been removed from the parent since they were three, or they’ve been removed from the parent so recently that they don’t want to go home. Sometimes when they want to go home, something that’s really sad, there’s this word called parentified which makes them want to go back home. It basically means that they have to take care of their parents—for example, if the mom is on drugs. They feel like they have to go home to take care of mom, and so judges are very concerned about that behavior pattern and very upset the child was put in that position. But that is often one of the reasons why a child may want to return home.
When do you think you knew that this was the type of law you wanted to go into?
I went to law school to do this specifically. Now when I came out of law school, I did not do this, I came out in the one year that law firms were throwing jobs at law students. In 2000, they were coming to the law schools and scooping us up. And you know, you get caught up in that, it’s an honor to get those types of positions. I went to work at a big law firm in Atlanta, and on top of that I did the volunteer work that I currently do with Guardian ad Litem. Eventually I did too much volunteer work, and the firm told me that I had to stop volunteering at the children’s courthouse. I left there, had Hilary [daughter] and with having a baby, I figured my work had to be only in things I wanted to do and not anything more. I looked for jobs only in child advocacy… I went and I volunteered at Legal Aid, doing intake for people that were just coming in off the street. A month in, the one person doing child advocacy part time moved to Seattle, and they offered me the job, and immediately I took it and have been there ever since.
And before law school, how did you figure out that this was what you wanted to practice?
I actually took some time between college and law school doing a different job. In college I purposefully picked a major broad enough because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I figured I would go to law school, even if I wasn’t going to be a lawyer, since I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but when I left college, my college sent me to a famous photography kibbutz. While I was there, President Clinton came over to Jordan to do the peace signing between Israel and Jordan. So I jumped on a bus and I went all the way to Jordan by myself because I thought it was so interesting. I watched the peace signing and bumped into this guy I went to college with. He traveled around the world with Vice President Gore, and I said to myself, I want that job. So, I got that job, left Israel, started working with Vice President Gore and traveled around the world with him for years. Then I realized I should really go to law school because I had taken the LSAT and it was about to expire, so it was now or never. I applied to law school and wrote my essay about how I wanted to do child advocacy.
What was it like, working hand in hand with Vice President Gore?
It was incredible, and it was a very lucky time in life when I didn’t have kids, I wasn’t married, I didn’t have responsibilities. So when they said, “you’re going to Paris tomorrow,” I’d be like “Okay!” and we were always going for really interesting events. I went to Paris on the 50th anniversary of VE Day, so there I was for the whole parade. When they signed NAFTA, I was in a button factory in Texas; when communism ended, I went to Estonia to assure the Estonian president that we would be there for them in a post-communist world. Everything was really interesting events that I would not have been a part of had I not worked for the U.S. government. Then I did the Clinton/Gore campaign in ‘96, and when they won, all my friends got jobs in the administration, and that’s when I said I’m going to go to law school.
Shifting gears a little, working with teenagers and just your job overall, how has it influenced the way you parent or just your view on life in general?
I remember I was standing in court; I was pregnant with Ryan, so this was 15 years ago, and I had a teenage client who was pregnant. She and I stood up together, because we always stand together at the podium, and I just remember thinking, “My life is so much luckier than her life.” I mean, how hard is it for her to be a teenager pregnant with no resources, no education, no job, and here I am sitting here, and we’re both just two women who are pregnant. I felt the juxtaposition between the life I was born into and was so lucky to live and the life she was born into. What she struggled with, probably forever, was just very strongly presented to me in that moment of us standing there. If we were an OBGYN office, we would just be two six-month pregnant people. I think that has just made me appreciate how lucky my kids are, how lucky I am. I mean, it’s not always about your hard work. You can get dropped into a life that’s just not really fair. Some people are born with a step ahead. My parents took care of me, I had family members that could have taken care of me should they need to step in, so that puts me a leg in.
Do you think that’s a mindset that all people with some form of privilege should have, or could have? Or is it more something you have to witness to understand how lucky you are?
I think people can all be told things, and until you meet people who live differently from you it’s hard to understand just how differently people live. I think when your generation does things like medical programs overseas, or Teach for America, you get put into an environment you wouldn’t otherwise be in, and it’s really a way to see how other people live and what you, with your resources of money, and education, and time, and being able to be articulate, can help. When my boss hired me, she told me she didn’t want me to get frustrated, but I wasn’t going to be able to completely change the trajectory of each of these children’s lives. But somewhere along they are going to remember that someone cared. And I think that goes a long way. That is not my law degree, that is not my financial resources, that is just the fact that I cared particularly for this child during a period of time in their life, and hopefully empowered him or her to make their life better. I’m trying to be a role model. I do get in front of those kids and hope they say, “Oh, maybe I want to be a little more like Nikki,” so I tell them how. You stay in school, you do your homework, you don’t do drugs. We have these really honest talks when they see me as a role model.
Is there some sort of realization or clarity this job has given you?
For sure. There’s this realization that there are so many different versions of this world going on. I’m in one, and I think it’s such a gift to be able to help people living a different life, try to recognize the disparities and help them get to a level playing field so they have the opportunity to succeed.
I mean, me personally, I see the way you are changing these kids’ lives as heroic work. But do you see yourself that way? Or is it just what you do?
I’ll say again, having nothing to do with my law degree, I have lived a life where I was taught to be articulate. So much of my job revolves around advocating articulately. For example, we have a child who’s virtual for school, but his brother is in person. One foster parent didn’t even think to call the school and ask why the one was virtual, the other foster parent lost her job, so now they are really struggling. She can’t go to work, the other one doesn’t work, and they can’t leave the house because of the child in virtual school. I asked if anyone had called the school, and they said no. So, I said that the next day, like a big old adult, I would call the principal and tell him, respectfully, the situation. That doesn’t mean because I went to law school, I know how to be articulate. That’s just because I grew up in a world that taught me to be articulate, it taught me how to advocate, it taught me right from wrong. That’s wrong that someone at the school has missed the two brothers’ foster care situation, and one is in school and the other isn’t. So I think that the education that I got, that you all are getting, can help us be able to really change someone’s life just by speaking up for them. That is much more what I do than presenting a motion for the court. It’s much more about advocating with the confidence and experience of having lived an enriched life.