UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania — Over the past academic year, students at the Penn State Family Law Clinic at Penn State Law at University Park has worked on several educational programs to educate existing and potential clients and other local stakeholders about the various aspects of family law.
Family Law Clinic students prepared a pamphlet “Grandparents and Child Care in Pennsylvania” for a local non-profit organization that provides support and resources to grandparents raising their grandchildren. The pamphlet educates grandparents about their rights and what the courts consider when determining custody, emergency custody and adoption.
According to a fact sheet prepared by the Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission for grandparents in Pennsylvania, 195,216 children — or 7.2 percent of children under 18 in the state — live with grandparents, and that number continues to grow each year.
“Educating students about this societal issue and the legal obstacles faced by grandparents is an important mission of our Family Law Clinic,” said Susan Bardo, Acting Director of the Clinic. “We were grateful to be able to help a local nonprofit with this issue, and we hope to expand our outreach efforts to help them as well in the next academic year.”
Bardo plans to ask law students at the clinics to review documents that grandparents are asked to file with a court to obtain third-party custody or visitation of their grandchildren. Students will research, review laws, and ensure documents are up-to-date and effective for pro se filings.
Tracy Ortega, staff attorney at the Family Law Clinic, is a member of the Center County Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force. During the pandemic, students at the clinic conducted research and presented to the Victim Rights and Protections Task Force when police request 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 the Associate Dean for Clinics and Experiential Learning. Michele Vollmer, and the engineering students of Sandra Allain, professor of practice at the Penn State School of Engineering Design, Technology and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP) and associate professor of law at Penn State Law. Allain has over 15 years of experience as an intellectual property and technology transfer lawyer in private practice and as in-house counsel. The pupils of Vollmer and Allain 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 solve the access to justice problem 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 an attorney. Allain created his course to teach students about this gap and how to help bridge it. With grants from Penn State’s Teaching and Learning with Technology program; the Penn State College of Engineering and the Leonhard Center’s EMIT Academy and its Entrepreneurial Mindset for Innovating Teaching program; and industry partner support, Youtopian, Allain and his students have been able to use virtual reality (VR) technology and 360 video while working with Penn State Law Clinics over the past academic year. Youtopian’s co-CEO is Penn State graduate Lisa Sibilia, and Youtopian’s mission is to create personalized innovation solutions in artificial intelligence and extended reality to change lives at scale.
Recent Penn State Law graduates Courtney Stevens, Jennifer Barker, Grace Ward, Melissa Johnston and Alyssa Castronovo participated in the Family Law Clinic collaboration with engineering students from Allain’s Design4Justice course. The law students began by generally describing the kinds of legal and other issues their clients face using words and picture montages so that all project partners could understand the clients’ situation. Many Family Law Clinic clients are victims of domestic violence who cannot afford to pay an attorney for help. the clinic does not charge attorney fees for its services. Students in both courses brainstormed and considered how technological innovations could help the clinic’s clients.
Using author Margaret Hagan’s model Law by design, Allain worked with his engineering students who designed a technology product that the clinic’s students and clients would want to use, which would improve their efficiency and solve the clients’ access to justice problem. After understanding and defining the problem, the engineering students presented and discussed several solution ideas with the law students and chose two.
“I am very satisfied with the work of my engineering students for the Design4Justice Family Law Clinic,” said Allain. “These students have no legal background, but care about social justice, were eager to learn, and readily accepted the abrupt learning curve. curve to understand legal issues related to family law.
The first solution for the Family Law Clinic was to record and narrate a 360 degree video of the local courtroom where clinic clients will appear before a family law judge, to help clients 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 visualize the experience with much more clarity and precision. We don’t have to worry about our customers not being 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 prototype VR metaverse and test it. For Family Law Clinic clients, the VR metaverse replicated the clinic’s legal office space and allowed clients waiting to meet lawyers and students to enter the VR setting to get comfortable , learn about family law topics and experience their first encounter 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 that showcased the collaboration. During the seminar, Sibilia emphasized how eager she was to be part of the project and to help the students of her alma mater.
“Youtopian’s mission to be an innovation leader naturally has strong roots in training the next generation of engineers and technology innovators,” she said. “We were honored to be part of the Design4Justice course and look forward to more collaborations with Penn State in the future.”