2024 Skadden Fellow Anna Belle Newport ’23 on Keeping Struggling Families Together

The Columbia Law School graduate, now a federal judicial clerk, will work on impact litigation for families involved in child welfare investigations as part of her fellowship.

Smiling blonde white woman in black shirt

Anna Belle Newport ’23 found her clients even before she thought of becoming a lawyer.  

After spending a year as a Fulbright Scholar in Jordan, she came to New York in 2017 to work with survivors of domestic violence, trafficking, and sexual assault as a bilingual crisis counselor with the Arab-American Family Support Center. There, Newport became aware of the power of city and state child welfare agencies, often referred to as the family regulation system, which can remove children from their parents and set conditions for their return. Her clients, many of them new immigrants with limited English skills who were victims of abuse, “were told to leave their spouses immediately or risk losing their children,” Newport says. “They were required to enter a shelter system where they didn’t have people of their faith or their language capabilities—or risk having their child taken away.” While she considered becoming a social worker, these experiences helped her decide that the legal system could be a way to effect larger-scale change.

“I saw my clients being put, time and time again, in really impossible situations,” she says. “That is what led me to go to law school.”

Newport began clerking at a federal court in Philadelphia after graduating from Columbia Law in 2023. At the same time, she began working on an application for a Skadden Fellowship to work at the Family Justice Law Center, pursuing impact litigation on family separation. She spent the summer writing application essays and collecting letters of support from mentors and nonprofits interested in family law issues. In November 2023, she learned she had been awarded the fellowship; she will begin the two-year position in November 2024, after her clerkship concludes. 

The Skadden Fellowship Foundation, which aims to improve legal services for the poor and encourage economic independence, provides two-year fellowships to recent law graduates to pursue the practice of public interest law on a full-time basis. The Family Justice Law Center, founded in 2022 and housed at the Urban Justice Center’s Social Justice Accelerator program, is the first organization dedicated to bringing affirmative litigation on behalf of families to challenge and remedy the abuses of the child welfare system.  

“The really exciting thing about doing the Skadden Fellowship is that, through impact litigation, we can work to try to change the system at large,” Newport says. 

During her fellowship, Newport says she is likely to focus on Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure issues, which occur when the children’s services administration engages in excessive surveillance of families and enters homes without a court order or sufficient cause. “They go into the homes; they will strip search the kids; they’ll rummage through all of the cupboards,” says Newport, whose 2022 Note in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review argued that child welfare agents should be required to inform parents of their legal rights before entering their home. “It’s incredibly intrusive. And these investigations are almost solely of families in low-income communities of color.” In New York City, for example, a Black child is seven times more likely than a white child to be in a child protective investigation. Part of her fellowship will involve leading Know-Your-Rights trainings for community members with the activist group JMACforFamilies.  

The process of child welfare investigations “feels incredibly punitive and brings families to court, as opposed to providing services or additional funding for families when they really need support,” Newport says. “So many of the charges in family court really are stemming from conditions of poverty,” such as lack of adequate housing, child care, or being unable to afford mental health care. Too often, child welfare agencies separate families instead of providing them with the help they need to keep children safe at home, she says.

Children need to be protected, Newport believes, but she says that child welfare agencies also need to act constitutionally and in the interests of the family. She draws an analogy with law enforcement: “Impact litigation has been instrumental in challenging and starting to rein in unchecked police power. We need the same sort of robust civil rights litigation challenging the family regulation system, too.”

At Columbia Law, Newport was a Max Berger ’71 Public Interest/Public Service Fellow, where she joined a community of public-service-minded students like herself. “Having other students who were interested in trying to make the world better and being able to talk with them … that was really important,” she says. She was also a Racial Justice Fellow and an editor on the Columbia Human Rights Law Review and the Columbia Journal of Race and Law. (She also played in three basketball leagues and became a huge fan of the WNBA’s New York Liberty.)

Her commitment to family law was confirmed during her 1L summer, she says, when worked as an intern in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Still She Rises, which is dedicated exclusively to the legal defense of mothers in both the criminal and civil legal systems. 

“I felt clear in my vision of wanting to do family defense, but I had only seen it through the New York City lens,” she says. “It was exciting, or depressing—I don’t know what word to use—to see how even when the jurisdiction, the state, and the statutes are all different, the same themes come up, time and time again: Children of color are taken from their families. Parents are being penalized for being poor. You see the same themes even in very different contexts. And that was really eye-opening.” Newport also worked during law school with the Brooklyn Defender Services, Bronx Defenders, and Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. 

She credits several faculty and administrators with helping her shape her career path in family law litigation and pursue the Skadden Fellowship, including Jane M. Spinak, Edward Ross Aranow Clinical Professor Emerita of Law; Josh Gupta-Kagan, clinical professor of law; Cynthia Godsoe, former visiting professor of law; and Joel Dodge, director of public interest lawyering and strategic initiatives in the Office of Public Interest/Public Service Law and Careers. “The blessing and the curse of a fellowship is that you have the opportunity to say, ‘What is my dream job?’ And then you get to concoct it and find an organization in which to do it,” she says. “That is a blessing because I now get to do my dream job. But that’s also a huge undertaking when you’re still a student and learning. So you really do need to have professors who are willing to brainstorm with you.”