The emancipation of a minor – that is, the process by which a child above the age of 16 can free him- or herself from control of a parent or guardian – is not easy. In addition to the natural emotional issues, there are many complex legal hurdles that have to be cleared.
As part of her summer externship at the local office of TeamChild, a statewide nonprofit legal agency that specializes in assisting teenagers, Michele Fukawa looked at one way that Spokane County’s emancipation process might be improved.
“There’s a packet in the Spokane County juvenile court system that they hand out to kids who are asking how they emancipate themselves,” she explains. “One of my projects was to revise that packet and make it easier for kids to understand.”
“Usually the teenager is in a pretty desperate situation, and it’s hard for them to find an adult who can help with the court paperwork. That’s where TeamChild can step in and assist.”
Between her graduation from Reed University in Portland, Oregon, with a degree in psychology and her arrival at Gonzaga Law, Fukawa was a social worker in Portland and later Vancouver, Washington.
With such an extensive background in child welfare, she was ideally placed to examine the emancipation process from two perspectives. On the one side was the existing legal statutes. On the other was the difficulty of navigating them.
“There are various online forums where kids ask the questions they have about emancipation. I approached it from that angle. What are kids confused about? And then I tried to explain it in a way they would understand.”
On behalf of TeamChild, Fukawa later met with a Spokane County Juvenile Court judge to discuss their proposed changes.
“The work I did for TeamChild was very educational,” she says, “but it was also a great opportunity to network. I met judges, I met people in other public interest legal agencies. That was invaluable.”
Some of those benefits have already become clear. Fukawa was recently selected to fill the only student position on the Washington State Civil Legal Needs Study Work Group, a coalition of judges, professors, and attorneys that advises the Washington State Supreme Court and the Washington State Bar Association on ways to expand civil legal assistance.