Alumni Spotlight: Catharine Debelle, JD ’17

Advocating for others
Recent Loyola law graduate Catharine Debelle (JD ’17) reflects upon her rewarding experience working with Loyola’s Health Justice Project.

On a cold Chicago morning in January, Maria (not her real name), a 24-year-old women from Champaign, Illinois, was awarded guardianship of her two younger siblings, a 10-year old girl and a 14-year old boy. The ruling came after Cook County Probate Court Judge Susan Kennedy Sullivan questioned Maria about her ability to take on the great responsibility of caring for her siblings, questioned her brother and sister about how they were doing in school, and asked the eager family members who filled the courtroom if they objected to Maria becoming the legal guardian of the two minors. The moment was touching and emotional.

Gaining experience
“I applied to work as a student attorney in Loyola’s Health Justice Project to strengthen my skills representing clients in court,” said Catharine Debelle (JD ’17) a former student clinician who earned her law degree from Loyola University Chicago this past December. “It was an invaluable experience to work under the supervision of a clinical professor during my last semester of law school to represent Maria. I had represented clients in the past, but never on a case that I managed by myself from start to finish.”

Maria and her siblings lost their mother to a terminal illness two years ago. Since their mother’s death, no one had come forward to obtain custody or guardianship of the young children.

“Maria was a courageous young woman who is five years my junior, but we’ve got so much in common. Both of us have experienced profound loss in our lives but have moved on to grow and thrive in very different ways,” said Debelle.

Learning the process
Maria was referred to the Health Justice Project by medical providers at Erie Family Health Center after they discovered that her younger siblings had no legal guardian to consent to their medical care. The Health Justice Project partners with Erie, a federally-qualified health center that provides services to people in poverty, and LAF, Chicago’s largest provider of legal services to the poor, to identify and resolve social and legal issues that negatively affect the health and well-being of vulnerable populations. As a student attorney with the Health Justice Project, Debelle was assigned to investigate Maria’s case and the guardianship process, and to work on her behalf to obtain the necessary documentation to file for guardianship of her siblings.

Positive outcomes
“Over the course of representation, I grew close with Maria, the children, and Maria’s father and step-mother,” said Debelle. “It’s a special feeling when your clients have confidence in your abilities as both a lawyer and a professional and begin to trust you. The research, meetings, case notes, and preparation, were all about Maria. Going to court was exciting, but the most rewarding part of my experience was helping my client to succeed. Maria is now the proud and empowered legal guardian of her brother and sister—and I am a wiser person and one step closer to becoming a pretty darn good lawyer.”

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