Family Defense Clinic helps win justice for young mother

A hard-won reversal in a case of alleged child abuse has vindicated the efforts of NYU Law’s Family Defense Clinic, which represents parents in New York City’s Family Court who are accused of maltreating their children. The clinic partners with the Brooklyn Family Defense Project, founded by Lauren Shapiro ’86.

The three-year saga began in February 2010 when a young mother brought her infant son to the emergency room, explaining that she had accidentally dropped the child on his face while taking him out of the bathtub. Based on the hospital report and attending physicians’ diagnoses, the mother was accused of child abuse after a radiologist read an MRI as indicating older injuries pointing to a potential pattern of abuse. The entire case hinged on whether previous trauma had existed.

Martin Guggenheim
Martin Guggenheim ’71

The mother was represented by Amanda Sen ’12, then a 2L student in the Family Defense Clinic, working under the supervision of Martin Guggenheim ’71, Fiorello LaGuardia Professor of Clinical Law. Assigned to the case in Fall 2010, Sen found a pediatric neuroradiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center who became the defense’s star witness. During the trial in Family Court, Sen handled all the direct and cross-examination as well as the closing statement. Of paramount importance was her questioning of her expert medical witness.

“Because it was such a technical matter, I had to learn a lot about a subject that I know almost nothing about,” said Sen. “Hemorrhages and hematomas and the different parts of the brain and what happens at impact and how plastic an infant’s brain is versus an adult’s.”

Guggenheim was more than impressed by Sen’s work. “This was one of the very best trial performances by any of my students over my entire 40 years of teaching,” he said. “She wowed the entire corps of experienced lawyers who watched the trial.” Despite Sen’s best efforts, however, the judge found for the city, saying that its witnesses were more credible than the mother’s.

Sen, who was arguing in court for the first time, found the experience “terrifying” but rewarding. “I had to understand all of that medical knowledge to do this,” she said. “I think it actually made a big difference, because I know that the city’s attorneys didn’t understand that. That was part of why the original decision was so disappointing, because I think we really did put on a better case.” Although the clinic’s involvement in the case ended at that point, through the efforts of the Brooklyn Family Defense Project, a private lawyer subsequently took up the mother’s appeal.

In February of this year, the Appellate Division, Second Department of the New York State Supreme Court vindicated Sen’s feeling about the original decision, reversing it in her client’s favor. The appellate decision held that the city’s prima facie case had been successfully rebutted by Sen’s expert witness, and that the city had failed to meet the burden of proof following the rebuttal. Such reversals are exceedingly rare in Family Court, since child welfare cases have such high and often irrevocable stakes.

“This was an entirely innocent parent who endured two and a half years of litigation and the loss of her child,” said Guggenheim. “It had such serious consequences for a real family. But with tenacious lawyering and the extraordinary trial effort that Amanda put in, combined with a very good vigorous appeal, you got an appellate court to say this was simply an unjust result.”

Sen, who was a Root-Tilden-Kern Scholar at the Law School and is now a Sinsheimer Fellow at Partnership for Children’s Rights, reflected on the importance of the case in human terms. “The parent felt very strongly that she hadn’t abused her son, so it was extremely important to her on a personal level that the court find that,” said Sen. “The Appellate Division’s holding has meant more to her than anything else just on an emotional level—the acknowledgment.  That came in part, I think, from our representation, that there were doctors and lawyers and student lawyers who believed her and were really working for her. To me, that was the most satisfying part of the experience, that she actually had full representation and that she felt that. I don’t think I realized exactly how much that mattered before this.”

Posted on April 8, 2013