New York, April 18, 2013—When Professor Jane M. Spinak created the Child Advocacy Clinic at Columbia Law School in 1982, she had a specific agenda: to represent children who were voluntarily placed in foster care by parents unable to provide adequate care themselves.
At the time, New York children who were removed from their homes by the state were guaranteed representation by a lawyer. But, in a peculiar paradox, those children whose parents sought out help for various issues were not. Spinak wanted her students to fill that gap by providing a specific service—representation in legal proceedings—in a specific type of case—placement in foster care.
More than 30 years later, specificity is no longer what’s needed. As Columbia Law School honors three decades of service by the Child Advocacy Clinic and its spinoffs—the Family Advocacy and the Prisoners and Families Clinics—Spinak and her students have shifted their focus to adolescent youth who are aging out of the foster care system.
Over the years, clinic students have helped clients navigate issues ranging from identity theft to paternity, and, recently, several participants conducted training sessions to enhance financial literacy among young people.
These days, the young men and women have an entirely different set of needs than those of the children the clinic represented in the earlier days. In short, they need everything—even things Spinak and her students initially had no experience seeking, like help with housing, health benefits, job training, tuition, financial literacy, and even parenting.
The Law School recognized the three clinics’ work with a full-day conference on April 20. The event featured discussions on policy and practice led by clinic alumni who are prominent in their fields. Alumni also had the opportunity to gather in small groups organized by year of graduation to discuss the future of child and family advocacy and the changing landscape of legal education.
Evolution of the Clinic
In 1999, in part because of Spinak’s efforts, the state amended the relevant statute to guarantee representation for children placed in foster care by their parents. But Spinak saw no need to stop there. For a long time, no one in the legal system had focused on the problems of older foster children. Armed with two recent federal statutes, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act and the Chafee Foster Care Independence Act, the Child Advocacy Clinic represents adolescents and young adults in the transition to adulthood.
“We used to limit our practice to family court proceedings,” said Spinak, the Edward Ross Aranow Clinical Professor of Law. “Now we’re addressing novel issues that take us into courts and administrative proceedings or require sophisticated alternative dispute resolution processes in myriad areas. With our diverse caseload, it’s like we’re running a general legal services clinic for 16 to 23 year olds.”
Since the recession, an enormous amount of attention has been devoted to the plight of middle class children who graduated from college only to find there was no room for them in the current market. But foster care youth face the same tough economy with far fewer resources.
The Prisoners and Families Clinic has long operated at the intersection of the criminal justice, family court, and child welfare systems to inform incarcerated parents about their rights and responsibilities. But now it is expanding its reach to accommodate the growing needs of these parents and their families. Genty and his students recently began representing prisoners’ family members who are struggling to make ends meet—people who suffer from aspects of the so-called collateral consequences of incarceration that have been largely overlooked by the legal community.
“This is a huge area,” said Spinak. “It’s all the bad things that happen after someone has been convicted.”
One client is a teen who was left alone when her guardian died. Another client faces the overwhelming task of caring for her siblings after the death of their father.
“The work we do for these clients is not in opposition to the work we do for their incarcerated parents,” said Genty, the Everett B. Birch Innovative Teaching Clinical Professor in Professional Responsibility. “Although the specific legal needs of the parents and their family members are somewhat different, they all share a goal of maintaining their relationships to one another to the extent possible.”
These new forms of advocacy are just the most recent examples of how the Law School’s child and family clinics have evolved over the years to meet the needs of marginalized populations while providing a transformative educational experience for students. Perhaps the clinics’ most striking success? The high number of graduates who go on to build their careers around public interest work, including many who returned to the Law School on April 20 to consider the future of the field.
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