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Kylee Sunderlin, ’13, To Public Interest Students: “I Look Forward to Standing Next to You in the Trenches”

By Jordan Poll
May 1, 2018

Kylee Sunderlin, ’13, will never forget the night when child protective services came into her family’s home. They were investigating allegations of neglect against her sister, which resulted in the court removing her niece from her home and placing the child with Sunderlin’s parents. She was devastated to overhear the caseworker informing her intern that Sunderlin’s sister wasn’t allowed anywhere near the home she grew up in, and that they would be speaking with Sunderlin’s niece privately to make sure their family was following court orders. The outrage she felt when the caseworker proceeded to introduce her father by the wrong name and occupation has not faded with time either. “While these might seem like forgivable errors, they really encapsulate problems with the child welfare system in this country,” Sunderlin told students at Michigan Law's Public Service Banquet in April. “The people who knew absolutely nothing about my sister, my niece, my parents, or me, were making the most significant decisions about how we lived our lives—how we cared for one another, supported each other, and expressed love to one another.”

Now a family defense attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services in New York, Sunderlin spends her days defending parents like her sister. “Every day I fight to keep families together. I spend my days arguing for something so basic and so fundamental to each of our lives, which is the ability for our families—and not for the state—to make the decisions about what we know is best for us.”

Sunderlin explained that many of the systemic injustices permeating the criminal legal system also apply to the child welfare system. “Racial disparities exist at every stage of the decision-making process in the child welfare system. The same communities are targeted and disproportionately subjected to state surveillance, control, and punishment,” she said, citing statistics including the prevailing segregation in the New York State foster care system. “The same double standards for justice apply depending on your wealth and color of your skin, and they not only traumatize individual children and families, but perpetuate and reinforce structural inequality.”

As she does in court, Sunderlin reminded the room that all families have a constitutional right to be together and free from unwarranted state intervention. “It’s an intrinsic human right and recognizes the inherit value of family ties, which link us to our identity, community, and culture,” she said. “While the government does have the authority to take measures to protect children, this type of interference into the family structure, particularly the drastic step of removing children from their families and their homes, should only happen in the most extraordinary of circumstances. It should be the exception to the rule, not the norm in child protective practices.”

In considering how to connect her specific work in family defense in Brooklyn to a larger theme about public interest lawyering in the current political climate, Sunderlin noted that after the 2016 presidential election, and in the current political climate, her work remains unchanged. “I am still waging the same battles every day, and that is because some injustices have always existed. They are unaffected by changing political tides,” she told her student audience. “Those issues may manifest in different ways. They may seem worse during certain periods of time and different administrations, but they almost certainly didn’t just appear. They are directly rooted in injustices this country has faced since its founding.” And for Sunderlin, that recognition is at the core of public interest lawyering.

Even though her daily battles to bring justice to the child welfare system can make the present and immediate future look bleak, Sunderlin looked to the up-and-coming public interest lawyers in the audience with optimism. “There is so much work to be done,” she said. “And I look forward to standing next to you in the trenches.”

Michigan Law’s Public Service Banquet annually honors outstanding public interest work, including students' pro bono efforts. As a whole, the Michigan Law community logged more than 5,600 hours of pro bono service this year, said Amy Sankaran, '01, director of externship and pro bono programs. Forty graduates, including seven LLMs, fulfilled the voluntary Pro Bono Pledge, which asks students to complete 50 hours of pro bono work during their time at Michigan Law.

Also during the event, LAW Breaks was named the Outstanding Pro Bono Project, while the Excellence in Pro Bono Service Awards were presented to 1Ls Donya Khadem and Chloe Roddy, 2L Rana Ayazi, and 3Ls Madeleine Jennings and Austin Perry. Summer fellowship recipients also were announced. 2Ls Anna Hall and Melissa Pena and 3L James Coatsworth were named Justice John Paul Stevens Public Interest Fellows, 1Ls Ashleigh Bowne and Chris Opila received the Cohn Summer Fellowship, and 2L Erica Christianson and 3L Rebecca Wyss were awarded the Bobbe and Jonathan Bridge Child Welfare Summer Fellowship. The 2018 Spectrum Award in honor of Kevin Kennedy, LLB ’37, was presented to 1L Alex Moody, who will be spending the summer working for the National LGBTQ Task Force in Washington, D.C.

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