The Federal Constitution guarantees parents the right to direct the care of their children. Yet, each year, thousands of Michigan parents are stripped of their constitutional right to care for their children when the State terminates their parental rights. Because of the constitutional rights at stake and the permanence of the decision, the termination of a parent's rights ("TPR") has been referred to as the "civil death penalty" by courts, legal scholars and advocates.
Students in the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic ("CWAC") represent parents in TPR appeals at the Michigan Court of Appeals. Students handle all aspects of the case. They identify the legal errors and write the appellate briefs. They interview and counsel the clients. And they handle the oral arguments before a three judge panel of the Court of Appeals. Not only do students in CWAC learn key lawyering skills such as persuasive storytelling, structuring legal arguments, interviewing, and client counseling, they also safeguard the fundamental rights of these parents.
Our students have had some remarkable successes in these cases. Typically, parents prevail in less than 7% of TPR appeals; in the first four years of the clinic, our students have prevailed in almost 50%. Several of these cases have resulted in published decisions that will protect parent’s rights going forward, including:
The Court of Appeals overturned a provision of the juvenile code that allowed the state to terminate parental rights based solely on a prior termination. Our students argued that this provision violated the Due Process clause. The court agreed. Read the opinion.
CWAC students represented a cognitively impaired mother who struggled to care for her daughter. The Court of Appeals overturned the termination, holding that DHHS has an affirmative responsibility to ensure the parent is reasonably accommodated throughout the process. The Michigan Supreme Court affirmed, explaining that once knows that a parent has a disability, the department must "modify its standard procedures in ways that are reasonably necessary to accommodate a disability." Read the opinion.
CWAC students successfully argued that an incarcerated parent had provided proper care and custody when he arranged for care with his mother. This result was especially notable because DHHS had taken the child away from the grandmother before termination. The court noted that the father’s rights still could not be terminated because he arranged for care with someone would could have provided proper care. Read the opinion.
CWAC students have also won reversals of termination cases on a variety of other grounds:
All second- and third-year law students interested in gaining litigation experience focused on legal writing and research should consider applying for the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic. Prior experience in child welfare law is not required. In fact, most of our students have none. Students looking to spend a semester focusing on key lawyering skills such as persuasive storytelling, structuring legal arguments, interviewing, and client counseling, while addressing an important need—protecting the rights of parents facing the permanent termination of their parental rights —should apply.
Second-and third-year law students may register for the five-credit clinic using the Law School's computerized registration system. There are no prerequisites for the course. Information about registering for the clinic can be found here.
The five credits students receive for taking the clinic are graded. Students are informed of the relevant grading criteria on the first day of class. Students should expect to spend a minimum of 15 hours a week—outside of class—on clinic work.
"In CWAC, we were asked to look at complex, extensive records and compile appellate briefs on behalf of our clients—all of whom were parents whose rights had been terminated. We were asked to engage in regular client contact, to identify the legal arguments most advantageous to our clients, and then to present those arguments in written briefs and appellate oral arguments to Michigan's Court of Appeals. We engaged our skills as advocates to try to keep Michigan families together."
-Betsy Fisher, '14
The experience of handling an appeal as part of the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic improved my legal writing skills immeasurably and greatly increased my confidence in the interpersonal side of lawyering. Through a hands-on environment that facilitated close collaboration with engaged, passionate faculty and students, CWAC taught me, more than any doctrinal class, what it means to be a lawyer. The experience of handling an appeal as part of the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic improved my legal writing skills immeasurably and greatly increased my confidence in the interpersonal side of lawyering. Through a hands-on environment that facilitated close collaboration with engaged, passionate faculty and students, CWAC taught me, more than any doctrinal class, what it means to be a lawyer."
-Molly Dobberke, '15
"CWAC is an in-depth introduction to the choices that legal writers make at every level of granularity: from word choice and sentence structure to the effective use of precedent. You will learn how to craft each element of a quality appellate brief and identify concrete ways to improve your writing. Guided by seasoned—and successful—practitioners, you will transform a jumbled case file into a persuasive and technically flawless product. Finally, you will learn to adapt your written work into a compelling oral argument. This clinic will give you the skills and confidence to tackle your next step after law school, whatever that may be."
-Tim Shoffner, '14
Clinical Assistant Professor of Law
Prof. Timothy Pinto is a clinical assistant professor of law in the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic and in Michigan's Legal Practice Program. His interests include methods for improving and streamlining the instruction of legal writing to new attorneys, and more generally on ways to prepare law school graduates to be more "practice ready." He has presented at educational conferences on the use of checklists in the legal writing process and the benefits of using a clinical setting to teach legal skills.
Prof. Pinto earned his BA, cum laude, from Williams College. He then earned his JD, cum laude, from the University of Michigan Law School, where he was an associate editor with Michigan Law Review. Following law school, Prof. Pinto spent a year as a judicial clerk with the Hon. Roderick R. McKelvie in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, four years as an associate at the law firm of Winston and Strawn in Chicago, and eight years as in-house counsel for U.S. Soccer Federation. His work experience included participation in a large variety of litigation matters in state and federal court, contract negotiation and drafting, collective bargaining negotiations, arbitration and mediation proceedings, and advice and presentations to various boards of directors.
Prof. Pinto's recent publications and activities can be seen in his Law School faculty page.
Joshua B. Kay
Clinical Assistant Professor of Law
Prof. Joshua B. Kay is a clinical assistant professor of law in the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Domestic Relations Mediation Clinic. His primary interests include examining how legal requirements are put into practice in child abuse and neglect cases, how the child protection system addresses the needs of parents and children with disabilities, and how mental health information is used and understood by child welfare agencies and judicial personnel. He has conducted numerous trainings for child welfare workers, judges, and attorneys representing parents and children.
Prof. Kay earned his BA with high honors and Phi Beta Kappa from Oberlin College, where he received the R.H. Stetson Award in Psychology and Psychobiology. He then earned his MA and PhD in psychology from the University of Michigan, where he was a Regents' Fellow. Prior to earning his JD, cum laude, from Michigan Law, he served as an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Michigan Medical School, where he studied the effects of pediatric disability and was an attending psychologist and member of the ethics committee at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. He also taught courses in clinical assessment and supervised the clinical work of graduate students in the Department of Psychology. During law school, Prof. Kay received the International Achievement Summit Award and the Craig Spangenberg Oral Advocacy Award. After law school, he joined Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service as a Skadden Fellow, receiving a certificate of appreciation for his representation of parents with disabilities in child welfare matters from the University of Michigan Council for Disability Concerns.
Prof. Kay's recent publications and activities can be seen in his Law School faculty page.
Vivek S. Sankaran
Clinical Professor of Law
Prof. Vivek Sankaran is Director and Clinical Professor of Law in the Child Advocacy Law Clinic. His research and policy interests center on improving outcomes for children in child abuse and neglect cases by empowering parents and strengthening due process protections in the child welfare system. Prof. Sankaran sits on the steering committee of the ABA National Project to Improve Representation for Parents Involved in the Child Welfare System and has litigated several cases on behalf of parents before the Michigan Supreme Court. He also has authored scholarly pieces and practical resource guides to assist professionals working with parents in the system and regularly conducts national and statewide training on these issues. He was also recently appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to the Child Abuse Prevention Board.
Prof. Sankaran earned his BA, magna cum laude, from the College of William and Mary. He earned his JD, cum laude, from Michigan Law, where he was an associate editor of the Michigan Law Review. After law school, he joined The Children's Law Center (CLC) as a Skadden Fellow and became a permanent staff attorney with the CLC in September 2003. Prof. Sankaran was named the 2004 Michigan Law Public Interest Alumni of the Year and, in 2006, was certified as a child welfare specialist by the National Association of Counsel for Children. In 2011, he was named the Parent Attorney of the Year by the Michigan Foster Care Review Board.
Prof. Sankaran's recent publications and activities can be seen in his Law School faculty page.
Administrator for the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic
Jackie Julien joined the Child Advocacy Law and Juvenile Justice clinics in January 2012 as a legal assistant. Julien is the first point of contact for clients, students, courts, and child welfare agencies. She works with student attorneys on case management and preparing and filing legal documents and correspondence. She joined the Law School in 2005 as a faculty assistant to several doctrinal and adjunct professors. Prior to joining the clinics, she helped guide students interested in legal careers in the public interest and government sectors and performed the administrative work for the Office of Public Service (now called the Office of Career Planning). Julien earned her BS from Eastern Michigan University in 2007.
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