Professor Bernard Perlmutter: Representing the Children

Picture of Professor Bernard Perlmutter

Professor Bernard Perlmutter

Professor Bernard “Bernie” Perlmutter, J.D. ’83, is an influential advocate for children whose voices need to be heard in the legal system. “I believe it is vital to give a child an opportunity to speak in a proceeding that will profoundly affect that young person’s life,” said Perlmutter, who is co-director of Miami Law’s Children & Youth Law Clinic, as well as professor of clinical legal education. “Our students and faculty have also been powerful catalysts for reform in the treatment of children, as well as being staunch advocates for their emotional, psychological, and physical needs.”

In his 22 years on the faculty, Perlmutter has taught hundreds of students about the varied legal issues facing children, including foster care, juvenile justice, custody, immigration, disability, and health care issues. He’s also been recognized with a long string of awards for his dedicated service to some of the most vulnerable members of society, including the Hugh Glickstein Child Advocate of the Year Award by the Public Interest Law Section of The Florida Bar.

“Back in the 1990s, there were only a handful of attorneys focusing on the special needs of children,” Perlmutter said. “Today, this is a growing, dynamic field of law. We have many students in our clinic who are very clear about making this a primary practice area in their careers. Other students see the intensive training we provide in the clinic as a way to hone their skills in a way that supports their ethical principles and professional goals.”

Growing Up on UM’s Campus

Perlmutter grew up on the University of Miami campus, where his father, the late Arnold Perlmutter, Ph.D., was a professor in the Physics Department for more than 50 years. “I remember visiting his old office and his laboratory, and enjoying the peaceful campus scenery,” he said.

But rather than follow his father into a scientific career, Perlmutter enrolled at Bennington College in Vermont, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature in 1975. He then went on to do graduate work at Brandeis University, focusing on medieval French, Italian, and Spanish. “I have always loved literature, languages, and critical thinking,” he said. “But after two years in graduate school, I decided to reinvent myself.”

Deciding to explore a career in law, Perlmutter moved to Washington, D.C., and began working as a paralegal at a major K Street law firm. “It was a great experience because I would work on large global litigation and transactional matters,” he said. “The firm also had a strong commitment to pro bono work, which resonated with me, and I was fortunate to assist several partners on a case being prepared for briefing and argument before the U.S. Supreme Court."

After Study of Medieval Languages, Law School Calls

In 1980, Perlmutter returned home and earned his J.D. at Miami Law in 1983. His first job after law school was with Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Service, where he represented Haitians who had come to Miami seeking asylum. He gained trial experience by litigating hundreds of asylum cases, mostly unsuccessfully. He was also able to collaborate and co-counsel with experienced attorneys in the private sector in federal class-action litigation, expanding his knowledge of courtroom procedures and strategies.

Drawing on his language skills, Perlmutter studied Creole to interact more effectively with his Haitian clients. In the process, he developed a life-long appreciation for Haitian culture and art. “We need to remember that the law is not just an isolated artifact, but deeply connected to culture and society,” he said. “As attorneys, our legal work should be placed in a larger frame of reference against the backdrop of history and culture.”

After several years with the nonprofit refugee agency, Perlmutter entered private practice, handling immigration, family, real estate, and corporate matters for a small Miami firm. But his heart remained in legal services, and in 1987 he was offered an opportunity to launch an immigration project for Legal Services of Greater Miami.

“We had gotten a small grant from The Florida Bar Foundation, and President Ronald Reagan had just signed the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, granting amnesty to certain undocumented aliens and farm workers,” Perlmutter recalled. “I was thrilled to create such an important project from the ground up.”

Reflecting on his work on behalf of immigrant children, Perlmutter said one of the most valuable services a lawyer can provide is helping these young people articulate their fear of persecution in their homeland.

“We had to turn their experiences into a narrative to persuade a judge in their favor,” he said. “That meant spending a lot of time listening to children describe what it was like in their homeland in order to seek relief based on a parent’s claim or their claim for asylum. The best lawyers will tell you that advocacy is all about story-telling. That’s certainly the case in the field of immigration law.”

Moving into Children’s Law

After serving as an advocate for young immigrants, it was a natural step for Perlmutter to broaden his practice into children’s law. In 1988, legal services attorneys Christina A. Zawisza, now a retired law professor at the University of Memphis, and John M. Ratliff, a retired professor at Nova Southeastern University, asked Perlmutter to join Children First (now Florida’s Children First), an innovative statewide law reform project to enhance children’s legal rights.

“Our goal was to provide children with access to lawyers in non-criminal cases, such as abuse and neglect,” Perlmutter said. “Thirty years later, I’m still doing that work.” Meanwhile, Perlmutter and his wife Pam Chamberlin, J.D. ’84, started a family, raising their son David, who is now training to be a therapist.

In 1995, Miami Law Professor Robert Rosen mentioned that the law school was establishing a child advocacy clinic and suggested that Perlmutter apply for the position of director. The Children & Youth Law Clinic opened its doors in January 1996, the first of the school’s ten law clinics. “I really enjoy teaching students in a clinic setting,” Perlmutter said. “It’s great to help our students build advocacy skills and to influence their professional identities as future lawyers.”

Through the years, Perlmutter has been in the forefront of the state’s evolving children’s rights movement, urging reforms in how children are treated in the courts as well as improvements to the foster care system. For example, Perlmutter and the late UM Professor Bruce Winick, along with Miami Law students, advocated in the early 2000s to abolish the widespread practice of shackling children in the courtroom if they were accused of a crime.

”We strongly believed this pernicious practice violated the due process principles of the U.S. Constitution,” Perlmutter said. “We filed friend of the court briefs in the federal district and state appellate courts, and one of our students argued before the Florida Supreme Court.” Ultimately, the court agreed, and promulgated a rule that shackling would be allowed only if there was a need to restrain a violent or unruly child.

Today, Florida’s children continue to need effective advocates, says Perlmutter. “As lawyers, we need to fight for our children, particularly young immigrants,” he said. “That means putting an end to cruel and inhumane practices, and ensuring their rights are respected in all our courts.”