Child Advocacy Clinic In Action
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 shared a sense of responsibility for their young clients in foster care and the knowledge that their advocacy meant a great deal in the lives of these children.
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 Lai was assigned have been in foster care since 2003: a 15-year-old in a group home who wanted to be adopted; a 17-year-old in a new foster care placement who didn't want her mother's parental rights to be terminated; and a 14-year-old who hoped to be adopted by an uncle in Florida. Lai represented these children as an intern with their law guardian from the Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society of New York City from the day he began working at the Child Advocacy Clinic. One of Lai's responsibilities was 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 Lai.
Expediting an Adoption
Lai talked to each child about once a week, relayed information to the client's caseworker, and established action timetables. One of his greatest challenges was to spur a local adoption agency to file an interstate compact for the boy who wanted to be adopted in Florida. The process required coordination among the boy's caseworker, caseworker supervisor, and the Administration for Children's Services attorney, to make sure the paperwork would get done on time. Lai had pushed the officials hard because he hoped the boy could 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 Lai, "but when the potential consequences are as great as they are with children in such vulnerable conditions, this preparation is really important."
Although Lai 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.
“Each child has a different hope for his or her future.”
– Matt Lai
A Complex Immigration Case
Lai worked with Meg Ciavarella '07 on another case, in which they were 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. Ciavarella, 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 Ciavarella.
The immigration case revolved around a special statute in the Immigration Nationality Act that allowed 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 said 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 Ciavarella's and Lai's client, an unsympathetic judge put off issuing the order five times. To prepare for each court appearance, Ciavarella and Lai held moot courts with their professors to practice their arguments and gain confidence. They accompanied 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 Ciavarella. "It's a really difficult case, and we have to keep finding new angles to get the judge to listen."
Another of Ciavarella's cases 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 Ciavarella's client to pay her bills. After two court hearings, Ciavarella 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 Ciavarella, 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, Suh was involved in an effort to reform immigration procedures affecting undocumented foster care youth. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) had promulgated regulations and instituted official practices that drastically reduced 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 Suh. "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."
Suh was part of a team with Kevin Whalen '06 writing an amicus brief on behalf of child welfare professionals who were challenging those regulations for a group of undocumented children in California who fell into these two categories. Julie wrote about the age-out requirements and how they negated the intent of the statute.
Suh appreciated the opportunity she 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 had used 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."