Family Focused

Looking back on 30 years of family advocacy by Columbia Law School’s clinical program

By Philip M. Genty & Jane M. Spinak

Winter 2012

Within Columbia Law School’s celebrated clinical program, family advocacy holds a special distinction: The Child Advocacy Clinic and its “spin-offs,” the Family Advocacy Clinic and the Prisoners and Families Clinic, are Columbia’s oldest continuous clinical offerings, marking 30 years in 2012. This anniversary will be celebrated with a conference to be held at the Law School on April 20, 2013.

This focus on family advocacy is distinctive in another way. The family law clinics have evolved throughout the 30 years to address a shifting set of unmet needs; a combination of legislative issues and changing priorities in services have typically been at the core of this evolution. 

Sometimes the impetus for a particular clinical focus was a perceived gap in legislation. In 1981, Jane was an attorney representing children in Family Court for the Juvenile Rights Division of The Legal Aid Society. She became aware that although there was a statute mandating representation of children in cases where children had been removed involuntarily from their parents on allegations of abuse or neglect, there was no corresponding requirement of representation for children whose parents had placed them voluntarily in foster care. These parents were unable to care for the children and had sought help from the child welfare system. Jane saw that these voluntarily placed children often had needs that were not being adequately addressed by the foster care agencies and the Family Court. When she was asked to help launch the Child Advocacy Clinic (CAC) at Columbia Law School in 1982, she felt that if these children had lawyers, their experiences in foster care could be improved, and with appropriate services they might even be able to return home to their parents. The CAC thus began with a clear purpose to represent these children and change the practices in Family Court. 

For the next eight years, Jane worked with former colleagues Vivian Berger (Nash Professor of Law Emerita), Steve Ellmann (Professor of Law, New York Law School), Jean Koh Peters (Sol Goldman Clinical Professor of Law, Yale Law School), Nina Freedman (certified social worker and children’s advocate), Dr. Mary Banach (Associate Professor of Social Work, University of New Hampshire), and several other law and social work colleagues to build a model program of interdisciplinary representation of young children and adolescents who were in voluntary foster care placements. Jane’s goals were to get the system to pay more attention to these cases, to encourage other lawyers to take on this work, and to get the statute changed so that representation of children in such cases would be mandatory. Eventually, these goals were achieved—the statute was amended, and Lawyers for Children, a legal services program specializing in this representation and utilizing the interdisciplinary model that Jane had pioneered, was established.

At other times, the focus of our clinical work has been driven by the opportunity for an innovative model of advocacy created by new legislative initiatives and new colleagues. When Philip joined the faculty in 1989, he brought a devotion to legal advocacy for parents, a traditionally underserved client population. At about the same time, a new child welfare initiative had been implemented that provided services to at-risk families to prevent children from entering foster care. Jane, Philip, and Mary Banach redesigned the clinic to help parents get access to these “preventive services.” The Family Advocacy Clinic operated for several years, providing representation to parents in administrative proceedings and Family Court, while helping many children avoid lengthy foster care placements and achieve reunification with their families.

Another motivation for our work has been challenges that arose as a result of new legislative restrictions. While the rights of incarcerated parents had been a concern of Philip’s throughout his legal career, the issues took on new urgency in the late 1990s with the passage of two pieces of legislation. In 1996, Congress imposed restrictions on federally funded civil legal services programs that, among other things, prohibited them from providing any assistance to clients who are incarcerated. In 1997, Congress enacted the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). Among the provisions of ASFA was a general time limit of 15 months for foster care placements, a restriction with grave potential consequences for incarcerated parents, whose prison sentences typically run much longer than 15 months.  

These new legislative challenges were part of the impetus for the creation of the Prisoners and Families Clinic. Philip, Visiting Clinical Professor Laurie Barron (Executive Director, Feinstein Institute, Roger Williams University School of Law), and Daniella Liebling (certified social worker), designed a clinical program that combined “preventive lawyering,” through prison educational sessions on the rights and responsibilities of incarcerated parents, with legal representation in administrative and court proceedings. The Prisoners and Families Clinic has continued to operate at the intersection of the criminal justice and child welfare/family law systems for more than 15 years. During that time, the focus has shifted to parole and post-release advocacy, but the goals remain the same: protecting and strengthening parent-child relationships for families affected by parental incarceration.

When Jane returned to Columbia Law School from a leave of absence of several years to serve as the attorney-in-charge of the Juvenile Rights Division (JRD) of The Legal Aid Society in the late 1990s, she decided to draw on that experience to have Columbia Law School students work directly with JRD lawyers in representing their child clients. Many of these clients were older youth, including those with significant immigration issues. Again, a legislative impetus spurred the CAC to action. For several years, working with clinical staff attorney Ragini Shah (Associate Clinical Professor of Law, Suffolk University Law School), the CAC began to represent children in immigration proceedings, utilizing a recent federal law that provides the possibility of naturalization for undocumented children in foster care.

The current CAC makes a full circle back to addressing unmet needs of youth. Focusing on the significant increase in the number of adolescents who are aging out of the foster care system and have many serious legal needs as they attempt to establish independent adult lives, the CAC is representing these youth and young adults on issues that would otherwise go unresolved. This advocacy has been driven, in part, by two federal statutes: the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, which continues federal payments for youth in foster care until they turn 21; and the Chafee Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, which requires foster care agencies to improve independent living planning. As the federal government has increasingly paid attention to these older youth, so has the CAC, as it tries to secure for them an easier and more productive exit from foster care.

Thus, during the past 30 years, as the needs of indigent families have evolved, Columbia’s Child Advocacy, Family Advocacy, and Prisoners and Families Clinics have adapted accordingly. Throughout these changing times, we have attempted to maintain two constants: a transformative educational experience for students, and the provision of much-needed direct services to society’s most vulnerable families.