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Emma Alpert ’09
Discovering Family Defense Work
I knew almost nothing about the field of family defense work before I heard about the Brooklyn Family Defense Project, now Brooklyn Defender Services’ Family Defense Practice (BFDP). I was interested in applying for fellowships, and was talking with my clinical professor, Camille Carey, about what I was looking for in a host organization. I told her that I wanted to work in direct legal services with low-income families in New York, that I wanted excellent supervision and supportive co-workers, and that I would prefer if the work was intellectually interesting. The wheels turned in her head for a minute, and finally she asked: “Have you ever heard of the Brooklyn Family Defense Project?”
As I quickly learned, BFDP is a leader among expanding legal practices that provide institutional representation to parents who are facing civil charges of abuse or neglect of their children in Family Court and possible removal of their children. In these matters in New York, both the parents and the children have a right to counsel, and in recent years, institutional providers like BFDP have stepped up to provide holistic representation to this very needy client base. Our staff includes not only attorneys but social workers and parent advocates who work with our clients to address the underlying issues that led to the family’s entanglement with the child welfare system. Since BFDP joined Brooklyn Defender Services in 2013, we have been able to coordinate not only criminal and family defense, but provide immigration and civil legal services to our clients as well.
My first year at BFDP I was a YLS Public Interest Fellow. My fellowship project was an extension of BFDP’s holistic model—as a fellow specializing in housing issues that affect our clients, I represented a target group of clients who were homeless or in housing crisis whether due to owing back rent or living in poor or overcrowded conditions. I also researched and wrote a resource guide for parents and parent advocates on the various government-administered or private housing assistance programs that are available to struggling families in New York City. When my fellowship year ended, I stayed on as a staff attorney, and in 2014, I became a Senior Staff Attorney and a specialist in medical cases where parents are accused of abuse or neglect under the res ipsa doctrine that certain injuries, when suffered by children, “speak for themselves” to demonstrate abuse or neglect even if no other signs of abuse or neglect are present.
I came up with my YLSPI fellowship project through talking with the supervising attorneys at BFDP about what type of fellowship project would best suit the needs of their clients. Some organizations prefer that fellowship candidates come to them with ideas pre-formed, but when I first met with BFDP, I was pretty open-minded and didn’t want to presume I knew what their clients needed. I had a particular interest in homelessness and housing issues because I had spent my 1L summer working on behalf of homeless families at the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project, so my project began to take shape when BFDP let me know that over one third of their client base is homeless or in housing crisis of some kind. I had seen firsthand during my 1L summer how damaging homelessness can be to any family’s stability, and how quickly a family can become involved with child welfare, a relationship that can be positive or very negative depending on the circumstances and discretion of individual caseworkers.
In New York City, as well as across the country, children living in poverty, and particularly children of color, are disproportionately represented among children in foster care or in danger of being removed. In a shadow report submitted to the International Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) Committee, the Urban Justice Center (UJC) and collaborating organizations point out that Black and Latino children make up 86% of the children involved with the child welfare system, while representing less than 60% of the general child population. When race is combined with poverty, the likelihood of a family’s involvement with the child welfare system multiplies, even where other factors, such as substance abuse and mental illness, are equally prevalent across race and class lines.
I love my work for many reasons. It combines elements of criminal defense and civil representation, as I am appointed counsel to people accused by the state of wrongdoing, but in the context of civil law and with the specifically traumatic consequence of removal of children. At YLS, I had worked in the capital defense, immigration, and domestic violence clinics. I enjoyed the direct services aspect of the immigration and domestic violence clinics, but I also found the subject matter and the high stakes of capital defense work compelling. Family defense has all of these things. The stakes could not be higher when I defend the rights of my clients to keep their families intact rather than watch their children be placed into foster care prior to any fact-finding as to whether they did indeed neglect or abuse their children. The law is also fascinating — because institutional providers are just stepping up to take on this work in the last decade, there is much room to grow in terms of bringing appeals and changing the way the court thinks about neglect and abuse, about parenting, and the effects of racism and cultural misunderstanding on the way that families are perceived. Most of all, I love standing next to the most powerful person in the courtroom—my clients, the parents in these struggling families. They are the people who can best alter the course of the legal case, who can find new jobs, overcome addiction, attend parenting skills courses, etc. in order to best protect and provide for their children.
My advice: you may not even be aware of the particular pocket of public interest that you will one day discover you love, but that doesn’t mean your law school work in various areas is not preparing you. But if you are interested in family defense, please come intern for us!
Updated September 2021