By Allison Hight, 2LJuly 19, 2016
“The real world cannot be controlled in the way that a traditional law school classroom can be,” notes Don Duquette, clinical professor emeritus of law, “but that is both the charm and the bane of real-world clinical work.” Fortunately, charm recently won out over bane when Governor Rick Snyder signed two bills into law on June 20 to improve the lives of those affected by Michigan’s foster care system.
Three years ago, students in Michigan Law’s Legislation Clinic began working on a bill that would change a small but significant part of the foster care system: sibling placement. “Up to 75 percent of all foster children are separated from a sibling,” explains Andrew Bronstein, ’14, who worked on the bill as a student in the clinic, which was offered in Fall 2013 and Winter 2014. “In short, we haven’t done enough to support the family ties of foster children.”
One of the newly signed laws will help to combat these issues by making it more likely that siblings will be placed in foster homes together whenever possible. The law does not mandate that siblings stay together because the homes available cannot always realistically accommodate an entire family. However, Bronstein says, “Michigan must now make reasonable efforts to place foster siblings together, and, where joint placement is not possible, at least provide monthly visitation.”
The second law will prevent children’s visits with parents from being terminated unless the visits would cause the child harm. “In Michigan, foster children also lose the right to parental visitation too often,” Bronstein explains. “This legislation will make a difference in their lives.”
Professor Duquette agrees. “Parent-child visitation is extremely important, the greatest predictor of eventual reunification. The forced separation of a parent and child is extremely traumatic and maintaining ties is important to the child and also to the parent.” In short, he says, “these bills that passed are just terrific.”
Even as they celebrate their victory, both Duquette and Bronstein note that more must be done to improve Michigan’s foster care system. For instance, a different bill that the students in the clinic drafted that did not garner political support would have provided a path to restoring parental rights when a child becomes a “legal orphan,” says Duquette. This occurs “when parental rights are terminated, the child is not adopted, but the parent has overcome whatever problems caused the termination originally.” He explains that other states have laws to address this situation, but the political impetus in Michigan was not strong enough to support the bill this time around. “Maybe next time.”
Professor Duquette encourages current law students who are interested in working in legislation to get involved in the process while still in school if possible, noting that his original clinic students were able to both develop critical skills and act for the public interest. “It is a good service to the community, as well as a good way to learn lawyering.”
Bronstein, for instance, has continued to use the skills that he gained in Michigan’s Legislation Clinic to help develop and implement legislation after graduation. His experience has taken him from the U.S. Senate, where he helped develop education legislation for Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) to the U.S. Department of Education, where he helps develop the decision-making framework for borrower defense to repayment and determine whether students are entitled to debt relief where colleges engage in misconduct. “I have drawn on my clinic experiences frequently,” he says, “and my experiences have prepared me to develop, support, and implement laws and regulations to better serve children and families.”
Although the end game for legislative improvements has to occur in the state Legislature, Bronstein notes that it does not have to start that way. “My experience in the Legislation Clinic made it clear that change doesn’t start in Washington, D.C., or Lansing; change starts in a living room, a kitchen, or in our case, in a small classroom at Michigan Law,” he says. “I think it’s important to note that these two laws, which will do so much good for Michigan’s foster children, started that way, with a law professor and a handful of students sitting down to discuss how we could be better advocates for the people who need it most.”
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