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Family Defense Clinic

LW.11540 / LW.10251
Professor Martin Guggenheim
Professor Christine Gottlieb
Open to 3L and 2L students
Maximum of 12 law students
Year-long course
14 credits*
No prerequisites or co-requisites.**


Over the past generation, the number of children placed in foster care in the United States reached historical highs (comparable in some respects to the incarceration rate). At times, of course, it is appropriate to separate children from their families. 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–over the past 20 years to push back against this trend. We believe that poor 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 that are monitored and disrupted by child welfare authorities are poor and they are disproportionately Black and brown. (In New York City, approximately 96 percent of the children in foster care are minorities.) 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 child welfare 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 and relatives 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 exercises and hearings.

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 two 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.

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 on projects designed to improve 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 an amicus brief to the United States Supreme Court; preparing policy memoranda for the Commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services; hosting conferences of institutional providers of legal representation for parents; designing and conducting a survey of parents whose children are in foster care; drafting a report on Family Court for the New York City Bar Association; and developing "know your rights" trainings for parents. In addition, the clinic works with various defender services to litigate appeals aimed at developing significant 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. The seminar will focus on the cases students are handling, as well as broad policy questions in this field. 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 be used to discuss issues relating to race and class in child welfare policy and practice, and ethical and systemic issues that arise in students' cases.  The seminar will also hear from 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 Martin Guggenheim or Christine 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 2020-21 clinic:

Mario Alvarez   
Michael Bass       
Andre Ceccotti 
Maya Goldman
Sean Langberg  
Abigail Lederman

Zoe Lillian
Rachel Lindy
Claire Lowinger
Catherine O’Neill
Raphael Pope Sussman
Jeanette Sternberg Lamb

Students should also feel free to contact Professors Martin Guggenheim and Christine Gottlieb if they have any questions or wish additional information. Marty can be reached at (212) 998-6460 and via email. 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.