Pro Bono Practice Tips Series: Working with Immigrant Children

Aug 12, 2015

Infographic - Pro Bono Practice Tips


This is the third in a series of Pro Bono Practice Tips providing pointers on how attorneys taking pro bono cases from CAIR Coalition can be more efficient and effective while servicing their clients. In this post, Mari Dorn-Lopez, the Supervising Attorney of our Detained Children’s Program, discusses best practices for working with immigrant children. Mari is an expert in working with immigrant children and is a resource for pro bono attorneys who take on children’s cases through CAIR Coalition.

Set an Appropriate Environment

Before you even meet your child client, think about setting the appropriate environment. Ensure that the child feels safe, and supported so that they open up to you, their pro bono attorney. Here are some simple things you can do to help set the stage for a successful inCrayonsterview:

  1. Clothing: Consider dressing casually. A suit may intimidate a child.
  2. Speak at their level: Try to get down to the child’s eye level. Lowering your chair or sitting on the floor may be good options.
  3. Avoid trapping them: Make sure the child knows where the door is and feels welcome to leave. Ask if they would like to keep the door open or closed. It is also helpful to offer frequent breaks.
  4. Provide paper and crayons/pencils: Children may use the coloring materials simply to help de-stress while others may use it to help communicate with you.

Don’t Skip the Introduction!


The introduction sets tone not only for your first meeting, but the entire pro bono attorney relationship. Immigrant children often have suffered traumatic events. Rather than diving directly into a child’s story, try to talk about yourself or topics that may interest the child. Once the child feels comfortable with you, then explain that you will ask questions that may be difficult. Unfortunately, as their pro bono attorney, you cannot avoid all questions that re-traumatize a child. Nevertheless, be aware that often re-traumatization can happen so take a sensitive approach to questioning a child.

You should schedule numerous meetings with a child, allowing time for him or her to open up to you. Patience is key.

Remember the Immigrant Child is Your Client

The child is your client. Nearly all of the children we meet are unaccompanied immigrant children who were detained by the Office of Refugee Resettlement and are now living with a friend or family member. Start the interview with the child alone. Ask whether or not they feel comfortable with an accompanying adult (parent, guardian, family member, etc.) being present.

Explain to the child client as frequently as possible about attorney-client privilege and what confidentiality means. They may be apprehensive or distrusting of adults. Reminding the immigrant child about confidentiality and reiterating that they are in charge of their case will help the child create a strong relationship with the attorney.

While you are encouraging a healthy attorney-client relationship, it is also important to set boundaries with the child. There may be instances where the child goes to you, as their attorney, for more than their legal case. Being upfront from the start about your role is always a good idea.

Simplify Concepts

Law is a complex subject and confusing for anyone, especially an immigrant child. Drawing or illustrating helps children of all ages to better understand and visualize concepts. Other techniques can include playing games, acting out scenarios, and using props. Remember that you can be creative and keep concepts simple at the same time.

When introducing topics, remember to break down concepts and keep your explanations very basic. Many times children as old as teenagers are not aware of what may seem to you to be elementary terms such as: attorney, court, or judge. Do not be afraid to over-simplify. You can always add more information at a later date.

Don’t Get Too Caught Up in the Details

Try to avoid asking very detailed questions, or at the very least do not ask them initially. Remember that the child client cannot tell you what you need to know unless they understand what you are asking and why you are asking it. To help encourage helpful responses use open-ended questions. Then ask the child follow-up questions to gauge comprehension. The child might require some repetition before they are able to fully comprehend what you are explaining. Even if they understand your question, a child might not know the answer. You can fill in the gaps through other sources.

Also, there will often times be inconsistencies in a child’s story. Remember that some concepts such as dates may be difficult for them, especially if they have experienced traumatic events. This is not to say that you should not address certain inconsistencies with a child. Nevertheless, avoid frustration for you, the attorney, and child client by recognizing what details are not necessary.

Give a Timeline

Almost every child wants to know “When?” -- “When will I go to court?” “When am I going to see you?” “When can I work?” – Setting general timeframes at the beginning of representation with your child client helps ease their minds and allows the children to plan ahead. Make sure to set realistic expectations.

When a child has suffered trauma, abuse or abandonment, they may have a lot of difficulty opening up to you about it. Explaining in advance how many times the child will need to explain their story and to whom they will need to explain it will help ease their minds. The timeline also helps to eliminate fear and anxiety if the child client knows approximately how long they have before court, your next meeting or an interview.

Watch for Non-Verbal Cues

RubberbandSometimes children will say more through their body language than they will with their words. If you ask the child client a question and they break eye contact, this may mean they are thinking about what you asked and feel too uncomfortable to respond. It may also be a hint to pause or take a break before diving into a difficult issue. Every child responds differently. Getting to know your child client will help you to identify the discomfort translated through their body language. Some common cues to watch for are: nail biting, shaking, adjustment of clothing, head scratching, and avoiding eye contact.

Remember that these immigrant children suffered some sort of trauma or are the victims of violence. Be empathetic and mindful of the child’s mental state.

Part of being mindful is slowing down the pace of the interview. You may miss the non-verbal clues if you rush through the interview. After each question, give the child client plenty of time to respond.

Be Mindful of Cultural Differences

These immigrant children come from all over the world. There are cultural differences not only between people from different countries, but also between people from different regions within the same country. These ideas affect views on gender roles, work, school, family, and religion, just to name a few. What is “normal” to us may not be for the child client.

Language is another element that plays into your relationship with the child client. Some pro bono attorneys will use interpreters and others will communicate directly. Be aware of the additional obstacles that may come into play with an interpreter. Even if you are speaking the child’s native language there are many differences between countries that speak the same language. Some words may have a different meaning. Again, it is important to keep the language simple and clear.

Keep an Open Mind

Some of these immigrant children have stories that will shock you, scare you, and make you want to cry. They have lived through things that no one should ever have to face. Remember that the child clients are watching your reactions. Show compassion, and empathy but stop yourself before you express shock, anger or disappointment. If you react negatively towards what they are saying they may hold back and form feelings of distrust.

Click HERE for a list of pro bono opportunities with CAIR Coalition. Remember that there is no right to appointed counsel in removal proceedings and statistics have shown that unaccompanied children who have an attorney are nearly five times more likely to be allowed to remain safely in the United States.