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Intern Update, 7/3/12 (Abigail Skeans)

Abigail Skeans, 2L

Sixty Feet
Protection of Children/Rule of Law Development

This past Sunday, I traveled with a group of law students and lawyers from Pepperdine University School of Law to Masindi, a town about five hours northwest of Kampala, to work on the cases of the juveniles who are being held at Ihungu, one of the country’s five remand homes. In Uganda, a juvenile awaiting trial is held in a remand home (juvenile detention facilities) which offers poor living conditions and isolates the child from his family, community, and educational opportunities. According to Uganda’s Children’s Act, a juvenile should be on remand for a maximum of six months; however, as is the case at Ihungu, children sometimes remain on remand for up to two years.  
Masindi is a small town that is often a stop-over spot for tourists on their way to Murchison Falls National Park. Compared to Kampala, it is quiet, clean, and quaint. As we arrived at the historic Masindi Hotel, which boasts famous guests such as Humphrey Bogart and Catherine Hepburn, we debriefed on the intense work that was ahead of us for the three short days we would work at Ihungu.
Late Sunday night, we received case files from the local prosecutor (DPP) and began pouring over the files which included all handwritten statements. We divided into three groups, discussed the cases, prepared questions, and strategized about the depositions we would begin the next morning.
Monday morning, we arrived at Ihungu. It was the first time some of the members of the group had been to a remand home, and it was my first time at Ihungu. The compound is a former prison. There are separate buildings for boys and girls and the youth range from ages 12 to 17.
We entered into the boys’ building, introduced ourselves, prayed with the boys, and began to explain why we had come and what we hoped to accomplish on their behalf over the next three days.
We were provided with plastic chairs and began interviewing our clients beneath the mango trees, beside the maize fields, behind the girls’ building. As we started the interviews, the incredible nature of this experience became very tangible. Here we were sitting under mango trees in a small, forgotten place in a lonely town in East Africa doing something that should be very normal in the legal world–taking depositions–but how dramatically different this process was than doing it in a different context.
Our assignment was to take on two clients each, interview them, write defense briefs, and turn them into their defense attorney, the DPP, and the judge. It was a straightforward task, but by lunchtime I was thankful to have a moment to collect my thoughts.
Doing this work is largely a challenge because of the fine line one constantly walks between compassion/advocacy for the client and a sense of professionalism and justice for the act that he has committed. Most of these children are not innocent. Some of them admitted to engaging in acts that would disgust most people.
So then, how do you love these clients and ensure that justice is done on their behalf? It is a question I grappled with in the back of my mind the remainder of the time I was working on the project.
As I listened to their stories, I began to understand the various, complex facets of each child’s background. And it became easier to answer the question, “how could a child ever commit such an act?” These children know that they will live with the stigma of their criminal activity for a very long time. It will likely affect their relationships with their family, community, their ability to attend school, and the kind of employment opportunities that are made available to them.
Early Wednesday morning, as I was finishing the brief for my second client, I had a clear sense that traveling to Masindi, taking a genuine interest in the boys’ cases, and writing a defense brief on their behalf was my way of giving my two clients loving justice.
When I asked the boys at the end of the interview if they had any questions, they asked me if I could get them released that day or the next. They had no concept of the process of the justice system that they now found themselves a part of, an attorney hadn’t met with them, and they were just waiting for someone to show up, take an interest in their case, and DO something.
Our work at Ihungu didn’t save anyone’s life or change the world, but it did show a couple of boys what real love looks like. On Monday, 20 muzungus from America showed up, sat under mango trees, and asked them to reveal the dark story of their past–that seems crazy. But what’s even crazier is that on Wednesday afternoon, those same muzungus showed up with briefs written in their defense, bags of school supplies and hygiene products, and played a football (soccer) game with them. That kind of love can only be motivated by Christ.
Vulnerability met by Christ’s love runs to the person with aid, compassion, and redemptive grace.

          – Abigail Skeans, 7/3/12