Elaine Sutton Shares Impact of Goldman Fellowship on ACLU-MO

Hannah Wheaton has a tremendous gaze. Right away, this let me know that she was taking things in both intellectually and at a heart level. She also has a unique understanding of nuanced legal issues and the justice system. I saw that she was profoundly serious about our work.

This summer, Hannah joined the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri (ACLU-MO) as a Goldman Fellow from Washington University in St. Louis. Hannah, class of 2020, initially served as a complaint counselor in the Intake Complaint Unit, which reviews claims of civil rights and civil liberties violations. Complaints come from a variety of sources, including letters, phone calls, and online submissions. Hannah carried a portfolio of complaints, averaging 15-20 per week.

During our first one-on-one meeting, Hannah expressed an interest in juvenile justice concerns. Remembering this, I approached Hannah to determine if she would be willing to take on a highly specialized assignment in addition to her complaint load, and the answer was yes. 

I supervised Hannah throughout the project, which entailed an in-depth review of a memorandum agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and 21st Circuit Family Court in St. Louis County. The 21st Court was under review for practices involving juveniles. Many, for instance, were being encouraged to waive their right to seek counsel. Hannah’s goal was to identify whether the 21st Court had implemented recommended changes issued by the DOJ. She developed an executive summary highlighting her findings and suggestions for next steps.

Hannah’s work has broadened the scope of our work and led to new partnerships. On behalf of ACLU-MO, I am pleased to announce a collaboration with Metropolitan Congregations United. This partnership will work to connect families of juveniles in the 21st Circuit Family Court with the services of the ACLU and more fully protect their civil liberties. We will also work with the Missouri State Public Defender Office on Stand-up Juvenile Justice Units. We will hold monthly conference calls to discuss status updates on juvenile proceedings when youth are discouraged from accessing counsel and to monitor the level of involvement that Deputy Juvenile Officers have in juvenile proceedings.

As a supervisor and mentor, my goal is to expose undergraduates like Hannah to the positive and negative realities of the justice system. Historically and to date, the St. Louis metropolitan area has a plethora of social and economic challenges. I believe that civic and community-based internships provide an expanded lens through which WashU students can more broadly and authentically assess social justice issues beyond the classroom. It is exciting to help students along this path.

Elaine Sutton serves as the ACLU of Missouri’s Legal Support Coordinator. She leads the legal department’s Intake Complaint Unit, which reviews claims of civil rights and civil liberties violations. With over 20 years of progressive experience in the nonprofit social justice sector, Sutton has presented workshops, trainings, and keynote addresses to a wide variety of audiences nationally on issues specific to the criminal justice system as it relates to alternatives to incarceration, conditions of confinement, reentry, and special needs (individuals with disabilities) populations. Sutton has served as a grant reviewer and an independent consultant providing consultative services to numerous community groups concentrating on the emerging field of reentry building collaborative partnerships and networks to address the reintegration needs of the formerly incarcerated.

Prior to returning to her hometown of St. Louis, MO, in 2016, Sutton’s most recent position was with Syracuse University Burton Blatt Institute’s Southeast ADA Center as the Assistant Project Director/Director of Training and Technical Assistance. She previously served as the Senior Disability Advocacy Specialist for the National Disability Rights Network, formerly known as the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems (NAPAS) in Washington, DC. In May 2008, Sutton graduated from the Executive Faculty Development Program of Morehouse School of Medicine’s National Primary Care Center in Atlanta, GA.