Behavioral Issues

Skadden Fellow Chris Yerian will represent low-income youth who need, but can't get, behavioral health services.

Chris Yerian

Chris Yerian, Class of 2007, applied for the Skadden Fellowship after becoming aware, as a clerk at the Tennessee Justice Center, that children covered under Tennessee's Medicaid program often required legal assistance to get desperately needed behavioral health care.

In 1999, as an AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer at the Martha O'Bryan Center, a non-profit organization serving residents of Nashville's largest public housing community, Chris Yerian managed a matched-savings program that helped single mothers accumulate funds to start small businesses or pay for homes and education. "Tennessee had recently transitioned to a program through which child support payments were channeled through the state," she recalls. "As a result of bureaucratic backups, the women in my program did not receive child support payments for months."

Tired of "watching these women struggle to make ends meet while trying to keep their families intact," Yerian asked a legal aid attorney to help the women in her program obtain their payments. "I watched as he listened intently, took notes, asked questions, and made a plan," she says. "At the next program meeting, I was overjoyed to learn that some women had finally received their payments. That experience demonstrated the potential power of bringing legal skills directly to bear on the problems poor families experience."

Yerian returned to Vanderbilt law School at age 33 to develop the skills to advocate effectively for underprivileged children. When she earns her J.D. in May, she will join the Tennessee Justice Center as a Skadden Fellow, providing legal representation for children covered under Tennessee's TennCare (Medicaid) program who need behavioral health services, but have been denied access.

Described as "a legal Peace Corps" by The Los Angeles Times, the Skadden Fellowship Foundation awards two-year fellowships each year to approximately 30 graduating law students. Fellows create their own projects at existing public interest organizations, and the Skadden Foundation provides a salary, benefits and tuition debt assistance.

Skadden Fellowships are awarded based on proposals and academic performance, and Yerian competed for the prestigious fellowship program with hundreds of 3Ls from top law schools. She had knowledgeable assistance preparing her proposal; Assistant Professor Terry Maroney and Visiting Fellow Doni Gewirtzman are both former Skadden fellows. Professor Maroney represented low-income gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth with the Urban Justice Center in New York, and Professor Gewirtzman served as a litigator with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund's national headquarters, where he represented the mother of Brandon Teena, a Nebraska teen whose murder was portrayed in the movie Boys Don't Cry, in a wrongful death suit.

Yerian hopes the legal services she provides will enable more children who need behavioral health services to remain with their parents. "Behavioral health organizations often wrongfully deny or approve only minimal treatment to children covered under TennCare," she explains. "Left untreated or under-treated, a child's behavior often escalates until she is brought before a juvenile court judge, either on a delinquency charge or as a status offender, frequently on the initiative of her parents. Concerned parents, otherwise unable to obtain treatment, often then surrender custody at the quiet urging of case managers and treatment providers. Once a child is in state custody, the Department of Children's Services frequently compounds the error by failing to assess children, follow assessment recommendations, and appropriately place children. This lack of services is particularly devastating to a child who has entered state custody precisely to receive treatment."

Yerian clerked at Tennessee Legal Services last summer. After her AmeriCorps service, she spent two years as a grant writer with the Martha O'Bryan Center before entering law school.