Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Law School opens Detroit Center for Family Advocacy

Listen to a podcast about the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy.

With a stressed child foster-care system, one-third of the state’s foster children, and half its permanent court wards, Wayne County’s Department of Human Services is about to get help from the Law School.

The Law School’s new Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, which opened July 6, is designed to help parents and extended families care for their own children, to shorten the stays of children who end up in public foster care, and to keep some children out of foster care entirely.

The three-year pilot program will serve the Osborn neighborhood on Detroit’s East Side, an area that carries one of Wayne County’s highest rates of children being removed from their families.

The center will help families from two types of cases:

• Those in which legal assistance can help a parent, guardian or extended family member provide a safe, stable home for a child whose family has been investigated and substantiated for possible abuse or neglect.

• Those in which legal services to a potential permanent caregiver could help a child exit the foster care system completely.

Altogether, organizers project the center will help 600 children during the pilot program. The program has been specially designed to be easily replicated.

But the CFA plans to offer much more than just legal counsel. A specially trained attorney will team up with a social worker and a parent advocate to help a parent or potential guardian build a plan to address any safety risks while still keeping the child with the family.

While the lawyer can help with tasks such as restraining orders or powers of attorney, the social worker can assess parents’ strengths and weaknesses and formulate a plan to deal with them. Meanwhile, the parent advocate — someone who has experienced the child welfare system firsthand — can use that unique perspective to help the parent navigate the system.

“This center represents an opportunity to help turn hundreds of lives around,” says Vivek Sankaran, clinical assistant professor of law and director of the project. “Children are better off being raised by family rather than by the government. We hope to provide legal tools to empower family members to protect and care for their own children rather than depend upon government foster care.”

Donald Duquette, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic, will evaluate the project. He and Sankaran teach in the Child Advocacy Law Clinic, which was the first such clinic in the United States when Duquette founded it 30 years ago.

Law students from the clinic, under faculty supervision and as part of their studies, will help manage the cases. In the near future, the CFA hopes to include faculty and students from other disciplines and volunteer attorneys.

Sankaran said in some ways the structure of the CFA will mirror that of a teaching hospital, where a clinical professor and highly trained staff pass on their knowledge to skillful trainees while providing important service to an underserved community.

The Detroit Center for Family Advocacy is being funded with grants from the Skillman Foundation, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and the McGregor Fund; a grant from Bobbe Bridge, retired Washington State Supreme Court Justice and CEO of the Center for Children and Youth Justice, and her husband, Jon; matching funds from the Wayne County Child Care Fund; and support from U-M.