Wilbanks CEASE Clinic reputation as center of excellence grows

In its four years of operation, the Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic has directly assisted more than 100 survivors of child sexual abuse and exploitation, provided an invaluable learning experience for law students, and served as a center of excellence for survivors and attorneys who are seeking claims against abusers and a voice in the justice system.

Wilbanks CEASE Clinic Director Emma M. Hetherington (J.D.’11) said the clinic enjoyed a successful 2019-20 year, which included advocacy for clients, a virtual conference, the release of a white paper and the addition of a post-graduate fellow and staff attorney.

2020 Wilbanks CEASE Clinic Virtual Conference

Although guests were greeted with a Zoom meeting ID rather than signs directing them to the Larry Walker Room, the 2020 Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic Conference was an immense success – despite the change of venue. The March virtual event had approximately 200 participants.

Providing the opening remarks, clinic donor Marlan B. Wilbanks (J.D.’86) said the need for children’s services is even greater now with minors confined to their homes due to the novel coronavirus. “We’ve all got to be aware of how this pandemic is going to affect these children who are trapped in situations they’ve never been trapped in before,” he said. “In many ways, this fight is much different than COVID-19. There’s not a vaccine that’s going to stop child sexual abuse.”

Other dialogue centered on identifying and preventing child exploitation, examining risk factors associated with LGBTQ+ youth and finding justice for survivors of childhood sexual trauma. Second-year student Victoria T. Hicks also presented her research on the lack of racial diversity in the media’s representation of sex trafficking victims.

Georgia Division of Family and Children Services Director Tom Rawlings (J.D.’92) delivered the conference’s keynote address.

The keynote address was delivered by Georgia Division of Family and Children Services Director Tom C. Rawlings (J.D.’92), who has been a consistent fighter for the safety of minors. He spoke at length about children who may have a higher risk of exploitation, like those in the foster care system, an issue he said is “dear” to his heart. He also detailed Georgia’s approach to tackling trafficking with collaborative, coordinated solutions. “All of our state agencies, nonprofit partners and churches are all working together to fight this scourge,” Rawlings added.

The conference was a huge win, both in attendance and the crucial conversations taking place, according to Clinic Director Emma Hetherington. “The topics covered and the voices heard are vitally important to our fight against the sexual exploitation of children,” she said. “The further we delve into these issues and possible solutions, the better we can serve survivors.”

Civil Statutes of Limitation for Child Sexual Abuse and Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking White Paper

Additionally in March, the clinic released a white paper titled “Civil Statutes of Limitation for Child Sexual Abuse and Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking,” which examined Georgia’s civil legal remedies for survivors. Authored by Hetherington, Post-graduate Fellow Melina D. Lewis (J.D.’19), Staff Attorney Brian Atkinson (J.D.’13) and five law students – third-year student Chase C. Lyndale and second-year students Brittany A. Blanchard, K. Tyler Dysart, Devin Mashman and Charles L. Turner – the paper recommends more trauma-informed and survivor-focused state civil remedies, such as increasing the age by which a survivor may file civil claims against perpetrators and entities. The authors also found that access to civil legal remedies can be therapeutic for many survivors.

New Staff

Both Atkinson and Lewis joined the clinic’s team during the fall 2019 semester. Previously, Atkinson worked at Georgia’s Northern Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office as the chief assistant district attorney, where he prosecuted felony and misdemeanor criminal cases from intake through trial and appeal, and acted as lead prosecutor for the circuit on all special victims cases involving crimes against women and children. He earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from UGA.

Lewis joined the clinic team directly after graduating from the School of Law. While in law school, she served as managing editor of the Journal of Intellectual Property Law and received the Ellen Jordan Award for Outstanding Public Interest Student. Lewis also earned her bachelor’s degree from UGA. Recently, Lewis co-authored an amicus curiae with Hetherington in support of the appellant in the case Philip Doe v. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, et al., in the Georgia Court of Appeals. The brief addresses the appellant’s public nuisance claim, which was dismissed at the trial court level.

Hetherington was pleased with her team’s efforts during the spring semester especially given the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We continued to represent clients of child sexual abuse and shifted our planned in-person conference to a daylong series of virtual discussions furthering important dialogue on issues such as identifying and preventing child exploitation, examining the risk factors associated with LGBTQ+ youth and finding justice for survivors of childhood sexual trauma.”

She said she anticipates the Wilbanks CEASE Clinic’s influence and impact growing this coming year.

“One of our primary goals is to ensure that survivors are not forgotten during this difficult time,” she added. “As children are isolated at home and online more often, we anticipate an increase in exploitation. Our work in the clinic therefore must continue and we are working to ensure continued access to safety and civil justice for all survivors.”

– Bailey Walker

The Wilbanks CEASE Clinic is the first of its kind in the nation, representing survivors of child sexual abuse in civil litigation and juvenile court dependency matters. The clinic not only provides direct representation to survivors, but also serves as a teaching center as part of the School of Law.