Friday, May 14, 2021
Carolyn Clemens is a trailblazer for women’s and children’s rights here in Montana. The first female law clerk for a Montana State Supreme Court Justice, and one of the first female deputy county attorneys, Carolyn has spent almost forty years advocating for women’s and children’s issues to be heard by the courts. Here at CASA we are proud to have had Carolyn as one of our first peer coordinators and are happy she stuck with us and continues to be a special advocate for children in our community.
Carolyn’s connection with child advocacy started early, in fact you might have seen her in her early days as a TV star! Growing up in Latrobe, PA, Carolyn’s family was close with Fred Rogers- Yes, that Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers often asked Carolyn’s mother to lend out her kids for what was then known as “The Children’s Corner” show.
“Being on TV as a kid was pretty impressive and exciting,” Carolyn recounts.
Lucky for us, Carolyn quit the promising TV career and got serious, graduating from Boston University in 1968 and UM Law in 1980.Her first year out of law school Carolyn became the first female law clerk in the Montana Supreme Court. She served under Chief Justice Haswell alongside nine other male clerks.
“Guess who made the coffee every morning?” she joked.
Despite being the odd woman out, Chief Justice Haswell was smart and fair and Carolyn quickly cemented herself as a competent clerk alongside her male colleagues. Today, at least half the clerks in the Montana Supreme Court are women.
“I must have made half-decent coffee,” she says.
After her clerkship ended, Carolyn went onto the county attorney’s office to effect change on women’s and children’s rights in our state. Of course, it wasn’t always easy to get things done, especially as one out of only three female deputy county attorneys in the state.
“It took some time and effort to get to be accepted,” Carolyn said. “I think a lot of the men were pretty wary of me at the beginning and so were the police. They were definitely not used to a female telling them what to do and reviewing their search warrants. But I think after a few years they got used to me and I was treated as an equal.”
At first, Carolyn noticed that people often went over her head, going straight to Mike McGrath with questions on her cases. Mike McGrath-- now Montana’s Chief Justice-- was head county attorney at the time and had a strong desire for his office to do more for women and kids. For years, sexual assault cases went mostly unprosecuted, especially ones victimizing children. In 1983, when McGrath became county attorney, the huge backlog of cases meant she was constantly in court with him and that gave her a lot of credibility.
“There were things I couldn’t believe were happening to kids in a nice place like Helena, Montana,” she said.
Carolyn recalled one instance where a four-year-old girl had been running through the house and tripped over the power chord of her father’s video game. It unplugged the game and so he hit her in the gut and severed her bowel. It ended up killing her.
“I saw things at that office that just horrified me, and I got even more interested in child welfare because I think kids don’t really get a fair shake in a lot of places, in the legal system especially.”
Shaken baby cases were far too common in the ‘80s and ‘90s and she worked on a child and infant death task force which investigated child deaths and created a campaign working with local hospitals and other agencies to reduce infant mortality rates. In recent years, the infant death rate from shaken baby syndrome has diminished greatly and Carolyn attributes much of that to the efforts of the task force.
Despite the good they did, it was hard to bring children to trial for situations they had no control over. It still is.
“They were such emotionally draining cases. Your heart just bled for those poor children talking about what had happened to them and so frequently whoever was their caretaker chose not to see it or chose not to deal with it. So the children end up having to handle it on their own.”
Carolyn believes that most children rise to the occasion when you lay forth what’s needed of them; however, that did not always mean everyone in court was prepared for the testimony they had to give.
“I remember one trial I had that I brought this child in. I think she was about eight. She started telling us about what her stepfather had done to her and she started crying. I looked over at the judge, and the judge was crying. I looked over at the jury and half of them were crying. So pretty soon I’m standing there sniffling. Finally the judge adjourned the court for a while until we could get it together.”
Despite the darkness Carolyn experienced, she continued practicing law for 28 years and says she really enjoyed it.
“I liked getting to know all the people I met, many of them were in pretty dire straits. I liked being able to try and help people through those crises in their lives, and there were many. I was especially glad to be able to try and help the kids who were in such horrible situations and to have somebody in a position of authority that was willing to stand up for them."
Carolyn’s passion for standing up for children did not end when she retired in 2009. For several years she continued with the public defender’s office to represent children in court. When she stopped doing that she turned to CASA.
“I had great respect for CASA. I knew Bill Collins and I thought this is a good thing to do. I saw CASAs as being a constant in these kids' lives.”
Too often, high turnover for social workers means that children in foster care do not experience the consistency of someone advocating for them. Working with CASA today, Carolyn just took on a new case in which the foster mother said the kids had just gotten used to the first social worker and now they have a new one.
“It’s hard for kids to have constantly shifting personnel in their life. I thought CASA was good for that reason. They stick with the kids.”
Carolyn has been a special advocate for about eight years now, and was one of the first peer coordinators for the Lewis & Clark and Broadwater Counties CASA here in Helena. Carolyn just closed a case that lasted four years and she stayed with the child throughout the entire process.
“CASA is a good opportunity to help the children that are around us all the time. It is so lucky for them to have somebody who can look at that situation and who can try to help them out of it and help them get into a good life situation.”