Meet the Legal Aid lawyer who’s been helping at-risk youth find their way for over 20 years

“The reason I fight so hard for my clients."

October 16, 2020
By: Andy Gregory

For two decades, Legal Aid Alberta lawyer Karen McGowan has helped countless at-risk youth navigate their way to a better future.

A life turned around is the ultimate victory for any youth lawyer, but it is a job that’s not for the faint of heart because not every case has a happy ending.

McGowan is marking a milestone in her legal career – 20 years with Legal Aid Alberta – and has received a Long Service Award to recognize her extraordinary commitment to helping Albertans.

Related: Long Service Awards celebrate 23 employees who’ve been with Legal Aid for five, 10, 15 and 20 years

“Every day, I’ve had the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of vulnerable and at-risk youth,” she says. “I would dedicate (my award) to every client that never made it to their 18th birthday. Sadly, we have had many.”

Heartwarming stories, coupled with heartache, make McGowan’s life as a lawyer both rewarding and difficult. To honour her 2020 Long Service Award, we asked McGowan to share a memory that has stuck with her all these years. She offered two.

“We changed her life”

A couple years ago I was walking back from court with one of my students when this young woman in her late 20s asked me if I was Karen McGowan.

She said she wanted to thank me and our youth workers (as they were then called) who helped her with her legal and social issues. She said that she was a horrible teen and that we changed her life.
I asked her what she was doing now and she told me that she is a registered nurse. So, I’m thinking, this girl was probably just one of those kids who had a scrape with the law but had a good home life and was able to get herself on track.

I asked her name. When she told me, you could have blown me right over. She was right! In fact, she even stole our youth worker’s car when he stopped to pick up another youth.

Still, her art still hangs in our offices. We often don’t hear about our clients once they get older. I was so happy that we made a difference in her life and it re-affirmed why I work at LAA.

“My heart shattered”

I was representing a boy charged with assaulting staff at his group home. He wasn’t just any kid. He was emotionally disturbed to the point that he wouldn’t talk, would bang his head, and was even catatonic at times.

His staff thought he was malingering but our experts determined he was legitimately unfit to stand trial and would likely never recover. He had been sexually abused and his behavior rapidly deteriorated when his little sister was also sexually abused.

It was presumed that his “failure” to protect his little sister caused him to completely shut down into this near catatonic state. I went to go see him in a secured group home with one of our youth workers.
He was in a video monitored room. He was naked because he refused to wear clothes. He would often smear feces on the wall. He would sometimes spit at staff.

In order to enter the room both myself and our youth worker had to enter the room in hazmat suits in case he discharged bodily substances at us. He was so scrawny. He was rocking back and forth. He never spoke to me.

My heart shattered and when I left I sat in my car and sobbed uncontrollably. He was discharged on his charges and the boy remained in government care. He was by far, the most vulnerable youth I have ever met in my 21 years as a youth lawyer. But he is the reason I fight so hard for my clients.