Sally Barrientes knew from a young age what she wanted to do.
“I wanted to be a public defender and work with children since I wanted to work in a profession where everyone is treated fairly,” she said. “I got my wish.”
Since 1989, Barrientes has worked in the state’s Public Defender’s Office, first in Racine County and then, starting in1998, at the Milwaukee Juvenile and Mental Health Office. For her, one of the most significant cases in her line of work dates to 50 years ago.
In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in the case of in re Gault finding that juveniles should be afforded the same due-process protections as adults.
“When you’re a juvenile it’s hard to have your voice heard, and it’s my job to make sure the children’s voices are being heard,” said Barrientes, who speaks Spanish and takes on as many cases as she can representing clients who are fluent only in Spanish.
Barrientes acknowledges her job is difficult, especially when she sees the same children coming through her office.
“It can be draining, but I try to focus on the success stories, the times I can see it in the children’s eyes or their parents just how grateful they are that I’m fighting for them or I hear children call me ‘My Sally’ because of that stable influence I’ve had on their life,” she said.
Barrientes saw her caseload increase greatly last year when 10 attorneys left the office in a short period of time. As new attorneys joined the team, Barrientes started holding weekly training, brainstorming and professional-development sessions for the entire staff, said Robin Dorman, regional attorney manager of Milwaukee Juvenile and Mental Health Office.
“Sally often garners high praise from the children, families and numerous professionals that she works with,” she said.
Together with her colleague, Robert Mochel, Barrientes set up an initiative known as the Expungement Project. The project lets children have their juvenile court records cleared away when they reach 17 if they have met certain obligations. Barrientes and Mochel have come up with a system that can be used to track children who may not know their records can be cleared and have since worked to make sure other professionals are aware of this system and know how to use it.
“If a juvenile has a felony on her file as a juvenile, it will stay there and follow her into adulthood,” Barrientes said. “Having a felony on your record can pose a lot of barriers, whether it’s finding a place to live or getting a job. We work with them to get it reduced to a misdemeanor.”