Making a Difference in Children's Lives Matthew Lai, Meg Ciavarella, and Julie Suh—law students from Kansas City, Kan.; Princeton, N.J.; and Flint, Mich., respectively—share an understanding of the New York City child welfare system that few New Yorkers will ever have. They also share a sense of responsibility for their young clients in foster care and the knowledge that their advocacy has already meant a great deal in the lives of these children.
From left, clinic students Meg Ciavarella and Matthew Lai prepare for oral arguments in Family Court with clinical supervisor Ragini Shah (right).
Matthew Lai '07
, a former teacher and dorm director of a high school boarding program, came to law school to pursue child advocacy. Having worked in both wealthy and impoverished settings, he was struck by the basic differences in opportunities between poor and wealthy children and hoped through the clinic to address some of those imbalances.
The siblings to whom Matt is assigned have been in foster care since 2003: a 15-year-old in a group home who would like to be adopted; a 17-year-old in a new foster care placement who does not want her mother's parental rights to be terminated; and a 14-year-old who hopes to be adopted by an uncle in Florida. Since the day he began the Child Advocacy Clinic, Matt has represented these children as an intern with their law guardian from the Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society of New York City. One of Matt's responsibilities is to communicate with the children and help increase their participation in their hearings.
"Each child has a different hope for his or her future, and with older children, the law guardian's role is to advocate for the child's wishes before the court," says Matt.
Expediting an Adoption Matt talks to each child about once a week, relays information to the client's caseworker, and establishes action timetables. One of his greatest challenges has been to spur a local adoption agency to file an interstate compact for the boy who wants to be adopted in Florida. The process requires coordination among the boy's caseworker, caseworker supervisor, and the Administration for Children's Services attorney, to make sure the paperwork gets done on time. Matt has been pushing the officials hard because he is hoping the boy can begin his new life in Florida by the start of the school year.
Clinic students are assigned to law guardians in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan and work under those lawyers' and their clinical teachers' supervision. The students are a significant help with the lawyers' large caseloads.
During the first semester of the clinic, clinic students learn the "people skills" of lawyering—such as how to interview clients, counsel them about their options, appear in court, and use arguments. They also learn skills specific to representing and counseling children.
"In any job, you get thrown in sink or swim," says Matt, "but when the potential consequences are as great as they are with children in such vulnerable conditions, this preparation is really important."
Although Matt had hoped to do this type of work while in law school, he was surprised at how much responsibility he was given. "The clinic has been a great combination of gaining a foundation to stand on and being able to go out and do some work that's really important," he says.
A Complex Immigration Case Matt works with Meg Ciavarella '07 on another case in which they are helping a Legal Aid Society lawyer represent a 19-year-old from Mexico who came to the United States illegally and wound up in foster care. Meg, a former camp counselor, joined the Child Advocacy Clinic to see how being a lawyer for young people was different than lawyering for adults.
"The clinic has definitely been harder than I expected, but also more rewarding," says Meg.
The immigration case revolves around a special statute in the Immigration Nationality Act that allows immigrant children in long-term foster care to become legal residents. To be eligible for legal status, however, the child needs to obtain an order from family court that says that that he or she has been the victim of abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Sometimes it takes so long to get the necessary paperwork that a child ages out of eligibility.
In the case of Meg's and Matt's client, an unsympathetic judge has put off issuing the order five times. To prepare for each court appearance, Meg and Matt have held moot courts with their professors to practice their arguments and gain confidence. They accompany the boy to each court appearance, along with his social worker, to keep him informed of what is going on.
"Even though we haven't won yet, it's very satisfying to have this challenge," says Meg. "It's a really difficult case, and we have to keep finding new angles to get the judge to listen."
Another of Meg's cases has ended successfully. She represented a college student in foster care who was having trouble getting the foster care agency to pay for room and board, which the agency is required to do. The clinic stepped in because the college was pressuring Meg's client to pay her bills. After two court hearings, Meg ultimately attained the necessary court order, and the bills were paid.
"It was a madly slow and painful process, but it's working out," says Meg, adding that the responsibility of the clinic can be hard, but Professor Jane Spinak and Ragini Shah, the clinical superviser, are readily available to help out.
Challenging Immigration Practices Julie Suh '06 had worked in book publishing before law school. She joined the Child Advocacy Clinic because as a student she missed the daily sense of usefulness that she had felt in the workforce and—as the child of an immigrant from Korea—had a particular interest in both immigration and child welfare.
In addition to her advocacy on behalf of individual clients, Julie is involved in an effort to reform immigration procedures affecting undocumented foster care youth. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has promulgated regulations and instituted official practices that drastically reduce the number of children who qualify for this immigration relief—affecting many of the children whom clinic students represent.
"The former INS requires children still to be in foster care at the time they receive their green cards, which is a problem for two reasons," says Julie. "First, it takes so long to get a green card that some have aged out of foster care. Second, a child caught on the border and in custody of immigration might be abused or neglected but not be placed in foster care."
Julie is part of a team with Kevin Whalen '06 that is writing an amicus brief on behalf of child welfare professionals who are challenging those regulations for a group of undocumented children in California who fall into these two categories. Julie is writing about the age-out requirements and how they negate the intent of the statute.
Julie appreciates the opportunity she has had to gain a more nuanced understanding of the child welfare system—what works and what does not—than the superficial awareness one gets from the media. "I have a better sense of how to follow the path of fault where it exists," she says, adding that she is using all of her legal skills in the child welfare practice, from interviewing clients to making court appearances to filing court papers and writing memos. "This clinic has an enormous direct service component, and we see clients on a regular basis," she says. "It has been a great experience."