Child Advocates’ Attorney Wins Prestigious State Award for Juvenile Defenders

Posted on June 4th, 2021

An older child who is abused and neglected and placed in the child welfare system needs someone to stand up for their rights. They are caught in a web of unexpected change, afraid and uncertain of where they will live, and they often feel lost and alone.

But they have a zealous advocate in Rachel Vilensky, a Direct Representation attorney for Child Advocates in Indianapolis. And she has received an esteemed honor for public defenders of children.

Rachel is the winner of the state’s Gault Award which is recognized as the highest honor for juvenile defenders in Indiana. It is named after a landmark Supreme Court decision that allows juveniles, accused of crimes in a delinquency proceeding, to have many of the same due process rights as adults, including the right to have an attorney.

“This award means more to me this year than in any prior year,” says Rachel.

At the end of 2020, she left the Marion County Public Defender Agency where she represented children in juvenile delinquency cases, to lead the Child Advocates Direct Representation Program where she represents children who are in the child welfare system through no fault of their own. Rachel and other attorneys in the program specifically represent children in CHINS (Children in Need of Services) and TPR (Termination of Parental Rights) cases.

“They’re facing the consequences of their parents’ actions. The parents do the crime and children also pay,” says Rachel. And you can hear the ferocity with which she is defending them. “According to state law, these children do not have a right to be appointed an attorney, a public defender, to represent them, so children in CHINS cases rarely have an attorney. Yet they are placed in the same private locked facilities that my delinquency kids were placed in. These children are not brought to all of their hearings, yet the decisions made at their hearings affect where they will live for years. These children have the right to be heard, yet they have no attorney to ensure that what the child wants is clearly presented.”

Rachel further explains that, while the law gives parents the right to have a public defender, the most important person in the case—the child—does not and usually cannot afford a private attorney. Currently, Rachel receives referrals from children who want to have an attorney appointed and Child Advocates’ Direct Representation program has grants that fund her team’s work.

So, you can see the beginning of a crusade unfolding for Rachel Vilensky through her work at Child Advocates. That commitment to children’s rights is the reason her former colleagues enthusiastically support her as a Gault Award winner.

“Rachel is such an amazing person and attorney. She is trailblazing, as well, in trying to get the right to have attorneys for children in CHINS (and TPR) cases,” says Jill Johnson, the juvenile division chief of the Marion County Public Defender Agency, who worked with Rachel when she was a public defender. “It’s the only area of law where a child is removed from their home, away from family, and they’re not entitled to an attorney to defend and protect them.” Johnson adds, “Knowing Rachel, one way or another, it will get done.”

The Honorable Geoffrey A. Gaither, Presiding Judge for the Family Division Court 9 in the Marion County Superior Court, is among many who recommended Rachel for the Gault Award. He wrote, “She is a force. A force for good. A force for best practice… Her knowledge of the law is notable. But not nearly as impressive as her fierce presentations on behalf of children. I have watched her over the years grow into this fireball litigator. She is tough. She is smart. She knows what she is talking about. She holds everyone accountable with respect to children… The child welfare and youth justice systems are the better because of her advocacy.”

Child Advocates’ CEO, Cindy Booth, hired Rachel Vilensky to lead its new Direct Representation program for children in December 2020 because of her dedication to children’s rights. “This award is for attorneys who work passionately for children and youth,” says Booth. “We chose her to direct our program because of her fervent advocacy. We are proud to have her as one of our own!”

And Rachel Vilensky says she is thrilled to receive the Gault Award while she is working for Child Advocates. “I am so impressed with Cindy Booth. She and her team took a chance on this program and on me. No one else in the state was doing this work, so they stepped up to the plate.”

Rachel adds, “One day when there is a right to counsel for older CHINS in Indiana—and there will be—it will be Child Advocates that is known for starting this work.”