As supervising attorney over both the Judge’s Action Center and the Office of Advocate for Noncustodial Parents at Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court, Tom Coupé works to ensure that the most vulnerable members of society are being fairly and equally represented.
“The Judge’s Action Center started as an outreach to the public to assist them with any questions or concerns they have about the court,” Coupé said.
The Memphis native graduated from the University of Memphis in 1995 with a Bachelor of Arts in political science. After graduating, he worked in the restaurant industry at varying capacities, saying, “While I enjoyed it, it wasn’t a good long-term plan for me.”
At the age of 29, he re-evaluated his goals and left town for the first time with a scholarship to the Southern Illinois School of Law. While in school, he planned to join the district attorney’s office and become a prosecutor, but a lack of opportunity at the time led him instead to the Shelby County Department of Children Services in 2004, where he began his legal career.
“I just kind of fell into that line of work,” Coupé said. “I never thought I was going to be a child welfare attorney, but here it is 10 years later and I’m certified as a child welfare law specialist and this is what I do and this is what I love.”
From Shelby County, he moved to Middle Tennessee to work with the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services in Williamson County. The Judge’s Action Center was put into place in 2007, the year Coupé first began working with Juvenile Court. Prior to that he had traveled around the state as a court improvement attorney with the Administrative Office of Courts, training judges, lawyers and court personnel on best practices in child welfare law.
Because of the knowledge he gained from this previous work, once he got back to Memphis and Juvenile Court, he said, he was “better able to help people when they had questions about child support or their DCS case.”
Coupé and his team of two attorneys help people prepare petitions and pleadings for Juvenile Court to help the judge or magistrate to better understand what the concern is and what is trying to be accomplished.
“So many children in the court process ... those children’s lives are being affected right now and if they’re being affected now, they’re certainly going to be affected in the future.”
“We don’t represent them in court, but we’ll assist them with the creation of the pleading and advise them on what that pleading will contain and what it means,” he said.
The Office of Advocate for Noncustodial Parents assists almost 4,000 per year, and the Judge’s Action Center helps almost half that many in the same time.
In the past year, the U.S. Department of Justice has been working with Juvenile Court to correct some of the court’s deficiencies such as hearings not being held in a timely manner, insufficient private attorney representation and the need for more due process and safeguards for children.
Coupé has been involved in an advisory capacity with his chief counsel, Larry Scroggs, on the negotiations taking place. One stipulation of the Department of Justice is that Juvenile Court has a community outreach liaison and Coupé is serving in that capacity as well.
“Part of my responsibility is to go out there and explain where we are in the process,” he said.
Juvenile law is extremely specific and there is not a lot of crossover between what’s happening in the adult world of the Shelby County Justice Center at 201 Poplar Ave. and Juvenile Court. There are other attorneys he’s spoken with who tend to have a secondary opinion of juvenile law, calling it “kiddie court.”
“It really is a specialty,” Coupé said, giving the example that he’s never handled bankruptcy law and wouldn’t attempt to represent someone in such a case.
The issues affecting juvenile defenders and their families are very real and Coupé takes a big picture view of those issues and would like to see more attorneys become specialized to address them.
“It’s frustrating because I don’t think the public understands how important this law is,” he said. “So many children in the court process, whether it’s neglect or delinquency, custody or even child support, those children’s lives are being affected right now and if they’re being affected now, they’re certainly going to be affected in the future. If we’re making sure that the children of today are being taken care of, then our city will be a better city.”