Family Defense Clinic

LW.11540 / LW.10251
Professor Christine Gottlieb
Professor Nila Natarajan
Open to 3L and 2L students
Maximum of 8-12 law students

Year-long course
14 credits*
No prerequisites or co-requisites.**


The United States puts more more children into foster care than any other country in the world (comparable in some respects to the incarceration rate). At times, it may be appropriate to separate children from their parents. The trend, however, has been to increase the ease with which state officials can take children into custody when they have concern about the children’s well-being, a determination that is highly subjective. The Family Defense Clinic has helped spearhead a movement–in New York City and nationally–to push back against this trend. We believe that low-income families, and poor families of color in particular, are entitled to the identical protections against unwelcome state intervention that wealthy parents (and their children) enjoy. The overwhelming majority of families who are surveilled and disrupted by child welfare authorities are poor and they are disproportionately Black and brown. (In New York City, approximately 4 percent of the children in foster care are white.) The Family Defense Clinic strives to protect and expand the due process rights of these families, and to advocate for the services to which they are entitled, but which they are often denied. Central to the Clinic’s mission is to work through both direct representation and systemic advocacy to combat the indignity and inequality routinely experienced by parents involved with the child welfare system.

Clinic students participate in a year-long, 14-credit course that examines family regulation policy and practice. The clinic's primary focus is on preventing the unnecessary break-up of indigent families and assisting separated families to reunite by representing individual parents of children who are in, or at risk of, foster care placement. The clinic also undertakes projects designed to address systemic problems in the foster care and Family Court systems. The clinic involves a mixture of fieldwork, seminar meetings, and participation in simulated litigation exercises.

The Family Defense Clinic has pioneered an interdisciplinary model that integrates social workers into legal teams to ensure that representation includes securing appropriate social services and providing meaningful support for family preservation efforts. Graduate social work students join the seminar and fieldwork components of the clinic, and work in teams with law students. The clinic considers the differences in the approaches of the fields of law and social work, and explores various methods of collaboration.

Course Description


(a) The heart of the clinic is the opportunity to represent individual clients in Family Court. Clinic students work with lawyers from the Family Defense Practice of Brooklyn Defender Services as counsel for parents of children in or at risk of entering foster care. The cases include child neglect and abuse cases, termination of parental rights proceedings, and permanency planning hearings. We also represent parents in administrative proceedings to clear records of child abuse and maltreatment.

Students, under supervision, are directly responsible for all aspects of case planning and litigation. The fieldwork includes extensive client contact, interviewing, counseling, investigation, legal research, motion practice, discovery, out-of-court advocacy, and preparing for and conducting trials and dispositional hearings in Family Court. It is common for students to argue motions and conduct contested hearings before Family Court judges. Students pursuing their master’s degrees in social work will be part of the legal team representing each client and will assist in analyzing and identifying issues, formulating plans to achieve clients' goals, assessing clients’ strengths and needs, and accessing appropriate services.

(b) Clinic students may also at times work with faculty and community activists on projects designed to transform child welfare policy and practice. The Clinic’s past projects have included legislative and regulatory lobbying; helping organize the first national association of parent defenders; drafting amicus briefs; preparing policy memoranda and reports; designing and conducting a survey of parents whose children are in foster care; and developing know-your-rights trainings for parents. In addition, the clinic litigates appeals aimed at developing case law in the field.

The Seminar

The seminar will generally meet twice each week for two hours. The early part of the fall semester will be devoted to study of the foster care system and the laws governing child protection and involuntary termination of parental rights. Special attention will be given to the roles of lawyers and social workers representing families and to an interdisciplinary approach to legal representation.

As the year moves forward, the seminar will be used to support and enhance both kinds of fieldwork activity, focusing on the strategic and ethical issues that arise in students’ cases, and studying a range of approaches to advocating for systemic change. Simulation exercises will focus on litigation skills, including interviewing, developing a theory of the case, direct and cross examination, and oral argument. Throughout the year, the seminar will address issues of race, gender and class in family regulation policy and practice. The seminar will also hear from a range of experts in the field.

Administrative Information

Students must be prepared to make a full-year commitment to the program.

Application Procedure

Students should submit an application, resume and a transcript online via CAMS. Applicants may be contacted by Yvette Bisono for an interview with Professor Chris Gottlieb. If you have any questions, you may contact Ms. Bisono at (212) 998-6177 or by email.

Student Contacts

Students are encouraged to speak with current members of the clinic. The following law students are members of the 2022-23 clinic:

Anthony Aguirre    
Kelsey Brown    
Julie Cahill    
Connor Engel    
Amelia Goldberg    
Tom Hale    
Lydia Horan        
Janet Lee
Tara Nair
Liam Riley
Leah Starbuck
Colin Threlkeld
Diane Valle
Catalina Villegas

Students should also feel free to contact Professor Gottlieb if they have any questions or wish additional information. Chris can be reached at (212) 998-6693 and via email.

* 14 credits include 3 clinical credits and 4 academic seminar credits per semester.

** Evidence is preferred but is not a prerequisite.