Giving the Kids a Voice


By: Matt Jacob

In an ideal world, no child would ever have to walk into a courtroom, take the witness stand and testify under oath about being abused.

Unfortunately, that world doesn’t exist.

So the best that the legal community can do is adequately prepare children for what can be a traumatizing, anxiety-riddled experience. And that is precisely what Rebecca Nathanson has done for the past two decades — with a massive helping hand from hundreds of William S. Boyd School of Law students.

Launched at Boyd in October 2002, Kids’ Court School was created to educate children ages 4-17 about what to expect from the moment they walk into the courtroom until they’re dismissed.

Created and directed by Nathanson, who is the James E. Rogers Professor of Education and Law at Boyd, the program relies on a standardized, evidence-based curriculum to train kids about all manners of courtroom proceedings and investigative processes.

That educational component is covered in an initial one-hour session. Then about a week before a child is scheduled to testify, they return for a second one-hour session that focuses on alleviating stress and building confidence. That’s promptly followed by a mock trial that takes place inside Boyd Law’s Thomas & Mack Moot Court.

“My goal when I set out to implement this was to make sure that kids were ready for and had a voice in court,” says Nathanson, who developed the program in the early 1990s while working as a research fellow at the UCLA School of Medicine. “Because we know that kids know very little about court — and what they do know often comes from incorrect
information. We also know kids are very nervous about going to court.”

Kids’ Court School operates year-round, with roughly eight to 12 Boyd students trained to teach the program each fall, spring, and summer semester. Those students, who receive pro bono hours and community service credit for participating, also oversee the mock trial aspect.

Nathanson says more than 1,700 youngsters have attended Kids’ Court School in the last 20 years, and as many as 400 students have volunteered — all of whom have found the experience rewarding.

“Kids’ Court gives our law students an opportunity to see what it’s like to interview kids in court,” says Nathanson, who arrived at Boyd Law in 2000. “More importantly, though, it gives them a chance to do impactful community service and really feel — as so many have often told me — that they’re making a difference in a kid’s life.” 

Indeed, Nathanson’s program has been so successful that it has won several awards, including a Bright Idea Award from Harvard University for innovation in American government. It also has been implemented at other institutions, including the University of Arizona and the National Judicial College at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“None of us can change what happened to these kids,” Nathanson says. “But by empowering them in the way Kids’ Court does, it really helps them heal.”