Dominic Terry is using his background, culture, and what he’s learning about federal Indian law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law to assist families in Ramsey County’s Child Protection Program.
Terry, 33, grew up in New Mexico and is an enrolled member of the Navajo nation. His legal career began nearly a decade ago in his home state, where he worked as a paralegal while studying philosophy and criminology at the University of New Mexico.
Terry moved to St. Paul in 2013 with his wife and joined the first class of Mitchell Hamline’s hybrid Juris Doctor program in 2015. The part-time, on-campus and online program allowed him to study the law while working as a full-time paralegal in Edina.
Last year, Terry took a full-time job as a law clerk at the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office in the child protection division. He spends a few days each week representing Ramsey County’s social services department in child protection hearings.
“I’ve appeared in around 700 hearings,” he says. “The experience has been amazing. I’ve got a good start on building a reputation as a certified student attorney, not only with my clients but with opposing counsel and judges.”
That’s valuable on-the-job training, but Terry is most concerned with helping families, especially American Indian children, in the child protection system.
“Unfortunately it does have bad endings sometimes,” he says. “But for the most part the goal is to work toward reunification of the family.”
Terry can empathize with families going through tough times. He was raised by his uncle, aunt and grandmother. Now he has two 3-year-old sons of his own – a biological son and a nephew he adopted.
“A lot of this job relates to my personal experiences,” he says. “It gives me a greater understanding of some of the issues – what parents might be going through, what children might be going through. These might be the roughest years of these families’ lives.”
As a law clerk, Terry works to ensure Ramsey County complies with the Indian Child Welfare Act. The 1978 law works to keep American Indian children with their families in child custody proceedings. Failing that, the law stipulates children be placed with other family members or another American Indian family in their community.
Diving deep into that law – as well as other federal, tribal and natural resources laws that affect American Indians – is what Terry is concentrating on in Mitchell Hamline’s Indian law program.
He’s also making connections with American Indian law students around the country as secretary of the National Native American Law Student Association and president of the group’s Mitchell Hamline chapter.
He’ll graduate in May 2018, and he hopes to work as a county attorney or practice Indian law for a firm. Later in his career, Terry wants to help his Navajo tribe either by serving as a prosecutor or tribal judge.
And above all he wants to inspire other American Indian students to go to law school. He says the country needs more attorneys to advocate in the best interest of tribes, especially attorneys who have a personal connection with American Indian culture.
“We have a tremendous responsibility to inspire our youth,” Terry says. “I want to be a positive role model for the Navajo community or any Native American community.” Tim Post