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Holistic Approach

Transforming families through an innovative program that pairs social and legal services

Since 2003, the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office (CLO) has pioneered a holistic approach for its low-income clients. As public defenders guide clients through legal representation, social workers address such issues as homelessness, mental illness, and substance or domestic abuse.

“We do what we can do to help our clients move forward, get out of the legal system so they don’t come back, get back into the community, and change their lives for the better,” says Sarah Buchanan (‘10, ‘17), CLO director of social services.

Many members of the CLO’s staff, as well as interns and externs, come from UT. Alumni currently account for sixteen of the office’s twenty-three public defenders, and all the social workers have degrees from UT. More than 50 UT social work students have completed field placements at the CLO since 2005.

After assessing the current situations and needs of clients, CLO social workers devise support plans that can include recommendations for housing or treatment programs.

“We try to give the public defenders a solution they can take back to the court,” Buchanan says. “Sometimes they can work with judges on alternative sentencing plans.”

Sarah Buchanan, director of social services at the Knox County Public Defender's Community Law Office, poses among many shelves of file folders
Sarah Buchanan is director of social services at the Community Law Office.

The CLO’s services extend to providing programs for local children, with an eye toward combating the risk factors that can lead to criminal behavior.

“Kids who are living in really extreme environments, usually associated with poverty, are more at risk to wind up in the criminal justice system,” says Knox County Public Defender Mark Stephens (‘79). “We try to expose them to things they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. We see that as part of our mission to prevent crime.”

The children build confidence and learn new skills by participating in arts, reading, gardening, cooking, and playing sports. UT students mentor the children through the university’s partnership with the CLO.

Buchanan’s PhD research at UT focused on how the CLO’s social work component affects recidivism. She compared outcomes between two groups of clients: one that worked only with a public defender while a second group with more complex legal histories had assistance from social workers. At the study’s end, the second group had fewer charges.

Buchanan says the key to the CLO’s effectiveness is training the social workers and public defenders to work with each other. And the approach is working well enough to attract broader attention.

State officials asked Buchanan to create a similar model for other counties. Now a grant is funding social workers in three more public defender’s offices. Buchanan is applying for private funding to test and implement the model around the country.

News of the CLO’s success in reducing recidivism is attracting national attention. Each year, University of Chicago law students spend their spring break of service in Knoxville studying the program.

“In doing this work, we learn the value of coming to understand each individual, seeing the inherent worth in that person, and communicating that we will work with you,” Buchanan says. “I have a client who went to prison. He calls once a week to work through his day-to-day challenges and conflicts. He wants to live a better life when he eventually returns to the community. I can help him take the steps for that to happen.”