Special advocate

U-M Law Skadden Fellow plans to assist children in North Carolina

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

As a Teach for America middle school special education teacher in rural Louisiana, Cari Carson saw there were very few advocates to help secure appropriate educational services for students with disabilities – and, in particular, for low-income students of color with disabilities. “Special education advocacy stood out to me as a great way to address achievement gaps and to give youth greater access to opportunity,” says Carson, who applied to law school in order to devote her career to this niche.

She has been interested in this field since childhood, when her mother worked at a facility for youth with developmental disabilities.

The Yale graduate will soon finish a dual degree: a J.D. at the University of Michigan Law School and an MSW from the U-M School of Social Work with dual concentrations in Management of Human Services and Children & Youth.

“While in law school, I realized I wanted my legal advocacy for students with disabilities to be holistic,” she explains. “Studying social work along with law has given me new perspectives on effective advocacy for at-risk populations.”

Carson has interned at the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan since last September.

“Working there has exposed me to a range of different opportunities, from working with families directly to writing a grant application,” she says. “It’s shown me the importance of both micro and macro skills in advocacy.”

At U-M, she has worked as a research assistant, in child welfare law for Professor Frank Vandervort, and in refugee law for Professor James Hathaway.

“It’s great to see where the cutting edge of advocacy and research is in these fields,” she says.

Last summer Carson spent three months as a legal intern in the Kids’ Rights (Special Education Advocacy) Program at the Metropolitan Public Defender’s Office in Nashville, Tenn.; and spent eight months as an intern at the Lucas County Juvenile Court in Toledo.

She has also clerked for the Guardian ad Litem Special Education Project at D.C’.s Children’s Law Center; was a summer intern at the Legal Aid Justice Center; a Policy Fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children where she co-authored “Connecticut’s 2010 Safe Harbor Law: Protecting Child Victims of Sex Trafficking in Connecticut”; and a Community Fellow at the Yale Child Study Center.

In 2014, she spent four months in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as a Fellow in the Michigan Program in Refugee & Asylum Law.  “Malaysia was an incredible opportunity,” she says. “Highlights included learning more about the on-the-ground work of the UN Refugee Agency, and exploring a new culture – I learned so much!”

Her awards and kudos include scholarships from the American Association of University Women/Center for the Education of Women and Wolverine Bar Foundation; A. Kay Stanfield Spinks Award from the D. Augustus Straker Bar Foundation; Kimberly M. Cahill Award from the Women Lawyers’ Association of Michigan; Bergstrom Child Welfare Law Fellow, and Michigan Law Dean’s Public Service Fellow.

She has been a Book Review Editor for the Michigan Law Review; a student leader in the Michigan Access Program; Admissions Outreach co-chair for the Black Law Students Association; a member of the Public Interest Student Advisory Board; and an advocate and member of the interdisciplinary Student Rights Project where she served as Special Education Advocate Liaison team leader.

The latest feather in her cap is a Skadden Fellowship. As a Skadden Fellow, she will work at Legal Aid of North Carolina Advocates for Children’s Services in Durham, N.C., providing direct representation to court-involved youth in special education matters.

“My desire to be an advocate for youth with disabilities has really been a driving force that has kept me going throughout law school,” she says. “I’m so thankful for the opportunity to get to do the work that I love starting this year.

“I’m also excited to return to the South to work in the special education field again – now in a different role.”

Carson, who grew up in Granger, Ind., currently makes her home in Ann Arbor, and has tutored in Ann Arbor and Willow Run Schools. She enjoys working out at the Y, and is involved in – and loves attending – the Ann Arbor Vineyard Church, where she participates in a poetry group.

She particularly enjoys “Tree Town’s” parks and open spaces to enjoy nature.

“I like being outdoors,” she says. “My favorite park at the moment is Bird Hills Nature Area. And I really enjoy watching college football and attending games at the Big House. Michigan has so much spirit!”

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