Three Decades of Advocacy
For 30 years, the family law clinics at Columbia Law School have worked to address the unmet needs of children and families. The challenges have evolved throughout the decades—driven by changing legislation and shifting service priorities—and so has the focus of the clinical work. Here, we take a look back at how the clinics have fought for children and families during the past three decades.
1982: Child Advocacy Clinic launched at the Law School, led by Professor Jane M. Spinak
The clinic’s original mission is to represent children who were voluntarily put into foster care by their parents. At the time, children who were taken from their parents because of abuse or neglect were guaranteed representation by law. But children who were placed in care because their parents admitted they needed help were on their own, and had no guaranteed counsel. Read more about Spinak.
Also, you can read more about the early years of the clinic in this 1983 New York Times article (subscription required).
1982–1990: Model foster care program developed
The clinic develops a model interdisciplinary program for children voluntarily placed in foster care. Read interviews with 1980s clinic alumni in this 1990 Columbia Law Alumni Observer article.
1989: Family Advocacy Clinic established
For several years after Professor Philip M. Genty joins Spinak at Columbia Law School, the Family Advocacy Clinic represents parents in administrative proceedings and family court, helping many children avoid lengthy placements. Read more about Genty.
1992: Genty becomes adviser to A Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual
The guide, produced by the students at Columbia Human Rights Law Review since 1978, is designed for use by people in prison. Tens of thousands of prisoners have used the manual to exercise their legal rights. Read more about the manual.
1993: Paper cited by New Jersey Supreme Court
One of Genty’s papers, “Procedural Due Process Rights of Incarcerated Parents in Termination of Parental Rights Procedings: A Fifty State Analysis,” is cited by the New Jersey Supreme Court in a ruling that held long-term incarceration alone is not necessarily a basis for terminating parental rights. Read the paper.
1994: Clinic brief cited by appellate court
A Family Advocacy Clinic brief is instrumental in a New York Appellate Division ruling that held foster parents have no standing to sue for visitation after custody is returned to the biological parent or parents. Read more about the case.
1995–1998: Spinak serves as attorney-in-charge of the Juvenile Rights Division of The Legal Aid Society
When she returns to the Law School, Spinak has Child Advocacy Clinic students work directly with The Legal Aid Society in representing older youths in foster care. Read more about Spinak's experiences at Legal Aid.
1997: The Prisoners and Families Clinic is founded, led by Genty, Visiting Clinical Professor Laurie Barron, and Director of Social Work Daniella Liebling
Working with two incarcerated women, Precious Bedell and Kathy Boudin, the faculty developed a new clinic focusing on the legal needs of incarcerated parents. Ms. Bedell and Ms. Boudin continued working closely with clinic students until their respective releases from prison several years later. The clinic was started partly in response to two new laws. One prohibited federally funded civil legal services agencies from assisting incarcerated clients. The other set a time limit of 15 months on foster care placements. In combination, this meant incarcerated parents could not get representation in family court, and that their children might have to go through multiple foster placements. Read about the early years of the clinic.
2000: Precious Bedell is released after 19 years
Bedell, convicted of the murder of her daughter, had worked with students in the Prisoners and Families Clinic. She had also taught a class in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility on family law to incarcerated mothers, and gained a master’s degree while in prison. Her campaign for clemency included supporters such as actress Glenn Close and Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, as well as the Prisoners and Families Clinic. Bedell and Genty were also featured on ABC’s Nightline in 1999. Although her application for clemency was denied, she was released after a pro bono attorney discovered errors that had occurred at her trial. Read more about the case.
2001: Genty helps develop training video
“Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind” is an instructional video created by the New York City Administration for Children’s Services and shown to incarcerated parents, foster care caseworkers, and correctional counselors around the state. Genty is involved in the planning and appears in the video. Read more about the project.
2001: Spinak serves as expert witness in reimbursement suit
Spinak develops an affidavit analyzing the effectiveness of the assigned-counsel system in family court. The suit filed by the New York County Lawyers’ Association challenged the constitutionality of the state’s system for reimbursing lawyers who represent indigent clients in criminal and family matters. In 2003, the state Legislature raised reimbursement rates. Read more about the case.
2002: Linda White is granted clemency
White served 13 years in prison for the murder of her abusive boyfriend. Students in the Prisoners and Families Clinic drafted a 70-page petition highlighting the abuse White suffered and her clean prison record. The petition helped White’s attorney succeed in her clemency application. Read more about the case.
2002: Center for Family Representation founded
Spinak serves as the first chair of the nonprofit organization, created to provide families in crisis with free legal representation and social services to enable children to live with their parents safely. Professors at three New York law schools conduct a joint course to work on these challenges. Read more about the center.
2003: Spinak advises Frontline
Spinak is one of four child welfare experts sought out by the PBS newsmagazine Frontline in its story, “Failure to Protect.” Read her essay on the Frontline site.
2005: Barbara Lapidus is released
Students in the Prisoners and Families Clinic, under Genty’s instruction, discover a Dutchess County woman was serving time for an offense for which she had never been convicted. Her sentence was reduced and Lapidus was released. Read more about the case.
2005: Spinak and her former student Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, ’83, are named “Human Rights Heroes” by Human Rights magazine
The magazine cites Spinak’s work in child advocacy, praising her “drive to develop the highest standards for representing children and to impart those standards to her students.” Woodhouse credits the Child Advocacy Clinic for her first exposure to interdisciplinary practice on behalf of children. Read the magazine article.
2005: The Child Advocacy Clinic represents undocumented youths
The Child Advocacy Clinic is given a grant from the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation to represent undocumented immigrant youths in foster care. The clinic represented youths seeking permanent legal residence in immigration proceedings, and also engaged with policy advocacy within both the federal immigration and state child welfare systems. Read more about the clinic’s work with immigrant youths.
2006: Research cited in Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal article about women who lose custody of their children while serving time in jail cites a study by Genty. The study found that parental-rights termination cases involving incarcerated parents more than doubled during the time period in which the Adoption and Safe Families Act went into effect. Read the article.
2007: Genty testifies before state sentencing commission
In testimony before the New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform, Genty called for updating parole practices and increasing resources for prison programs providing higher education, vocational training, and therapeutic counseling. Read about his testimony.
2008: Federal law extends payments for youth in foster care until they turn 21
The Child Advocacy Clinic begins to focus on the growing number of adolescents who age out of foster care but still have serious legal needs as they establish adult lives. Read about one student's clinic experience.
2011: Genty article examines parole changes
Genty’s article in the New York Law Journal reviews the “potentially sweeping” changes enacted in the state, including a “risk assessment” approach for granting parole. Read the article (subscription required).
Today, the Child Advocacy Clinic and its Adolescent Representation Project focus on children aging out of foster care or other institutional settings. Most clients range in age from 16 to 23. Their issues extend across a broad spectrum of need, including: housing and homelessness prevention; teen parenting; health and health benefits; income and support benefits; education, tuition, and financial aid benefits; financial planning; civil rights, including LGBT issues; job training and career planning; and domestic violence assistance.
The Prisoners and Families Clinic operates at the intersection of the criminal justice and the family court/child welfare systems. The clinic informs people in prison about their parental rights and responsibilities, as well as the ways they can effectively advocate for themselves. The clinic also provides services to assist those who have been released from prison and their family members in achieving reunification.