David Shalleck-Klein ’16 on challenging New York City’s home search tactics in child welfare investigations

In February, the Family Justice Law Center, founded and directed by David Shalleck-Klein ’16, filed a class action lawsuit against the City of New York, alleging that the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) uses coercive and unconstitutional tactics to conduct its over 50,000 yearly home searches. The suit claims that ACS, which is charged with investigating child abuse and neglect, routinely violates parents’ Fourth Amendment rights by deceptively threatening police involvement or removal of children in order to coerce parents to consent to home searches. At press time, ACS had not filed a response, but said in a public statement that it is “committed to keeping children safe and respecting parents’ rights.”

David Shalleck-Klein
David Shalleck-Klein

Shalleck-Klein says he drew on a wide NYU Law network for the litigation. Co-counsel in the suit are NYU Law’s Family Defense Clinic, directed by Chris Gottlieb ’93; civil rights firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel, whose team includes Shalleck-Klein’s former Civil Procedure classmate Max Selver ’16; and Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton, & Garrison, whose team is led by partner Audra Soloway ’01. Past and current students from the Family Defense Clinic conducted interviews with families to gather evidence and helped develop strategy, Shalleck-Klein says.

“It’s amazing to see in this case the distinctive coalescence of many facets of NYU Law: from involvement of clinical students, to pro bono support from major law firms and civil rights litigators, to analysis by legal academics,” says Shalleck-Klein. “The case would not be possible without the [Law School’s] investment in training lawyers committed to justice.”

After graduating from NYU Law, Shalleck-Klein worked as a public defender at the Bronx Defenders and clerked for Judge Tanya Chutkan of the US District Court for the District of Columbia. In 2022, he founded the Family Justice Law Center (FJLC), a nonprofit that brings strategic litigation in order to change policies that harm families. Shortly after Shalleck-Klein founded FJLC, the Urban Justice Center accepted FJLC into its Social Justice Accelerator program, and Shalleck-Klein won the David Prize—a no-strings award granted by the Walentas Family Foundation to New Yorkers working to change the city for the better.

In this Q&A, Shalleck-Klein discusses what brought him to family defense and how he hopes his recent suit will help protect families in New York City and beyond.

What brought you to family defense?

In the second year of law school, I took the Family Defense Clinic with Professors Chris Gottlieb and Marty Guggenheim. I was largely unfamiliar with the field. The clinic was a transformative experience, grounded in the pedagogical framework that they deploy, which includes intimate in-house supervision on cases, coupled with a seminar on the lawyer-client relationship, advocacy in and out of court, and the study of the systemic forces affecting clients’ lives and communities, all in the context of the child welfare system. The clinic put me on a completely different course. It also taught me the importance of pairing zealous and vigorous individual defense with creative and transformative systemic work. My experience in that clinic has shaped my post-NYU life.

Tell me about your decision to launch the Family Justice Law Center.

In my work [at the Bronx Defenders] and my close, continued collaboration with Chris Gottlieb and Marty Guggenheim, who have remained advisors and friends, we were seeing destructive patterns of systemic and systematic harms that the child welfare system perpetuated pervasively and illegally. It became clear that the strong public defense field needed a partner that would represent families in bringing transformative lawsuits in a variety of cases in order to focus on and affirmatively challenge the systemic harms that our clients routinely experience.

We were fortunate to secure placement in the Urban Justice Center’s Social Justice Accelerator program which provided instrumental support and guidance. And early on winning the David Prize brought significant attention to the damage to our city that the child welfare system perpetrates, contributed needed resources to FJLC, and catalyzed our growth by helping us bring on more full-time staff.

Tell me about your recent class action suit. How did you develop the case?

When we first launched FJLC, I wanted to be sure that I was addressing what families needed. I didn’t want to be constrained by my experience as a public defender or to overlook the range of issues that affected families. So, with help from students from the Family Defense Clinic, as well as Chris and Marty, we met with parents to discuss how the often routine practices of the child welfare system generally and ACS specifically devastated their families and inflicted life-long trauma on their children. We also talked with family defense organizations, children who had experienced foster care, child advocates, and other civil rights organizations. We met with government officials and the ACS commissioner to listen. We wanted to let people know we were there to join in endeavors to make change in the child welfare system and to hear how those situated in different ways wanted us to help.

One powerful theme that emerged from these conversations was the pervasive problem of over-surveillance by ACS, including unnecessary, unconstitutional, and traumatic home searches and strip-searches of children. ACS conducts over 50,000 home searches every year. A Black child in New York City has a 50 percent chance of being subjected to one in their childhood. But less than seven percent of home searches by ACS result in court proceedings, so as a public defender I was seeing only a few threads in this tangled system.

As I learned from Randy Hertz in the Juvenile Defender Clinic, there are three ways a government investigator can enter and search someone’s home: through a court-granted order (known as a warrant), in emergency circumstances, or with voluntary consent. Of the more than 50,000 home searches that ACS conducts each year, well over 95 percent of them lack a court order or emergency circumstances. In the overwhelming majority of investigations, ACS searches families’ homes by coercing consent for these deeply traumatizing searches. Often ACS is called to investigate by ex-partners, domestic abusers, or others as a form of retaliation. ACS, which has to investigate each claim, frequently conducts visits over and over again, even if they’ve found no evidence of mistreatment. These searches are immensely traumatic. Government agents frequently rifle through families’ most intimate belongings. They look under beds and in bedroom drawers, read labels in medicine cabinets, open refrigerators, and strip-search children.

Our interviews and research for this case revealed that ACS agents have a culture of lying to parents and threatening to take away their children or involve police if parents don’t allow them to come in when there’s no justification for such threats. These practices violate parents’ Fourth Amendment rights. And the effects disproportionately impact Black and Brown families.

We’re not saying that ACS should not conduct investigations. But they need to do so legally. And when they don’t, they need to be held accountable. ACS must change its culture of coercing acquiescence and stop inflicting the deep trauma these illegal invasions cause families.

What are your hopes for this case?

One aim of the lawsuit is to correct the misunderstanding that ACS has an exemption from the Constitution. To this end, we are seeking both declaratory relief—that is, for the court to declare that these practices are illegal—and what’s known as injunctive relief: for the court to issue an order requiring ACS to change the harmful policies and practices that are injuring families. We hope this lawsuit will not only change the child welfare system in New York City, but can also serve as a model for reform across the country.

What has been rewarding about working with members of the NYU Law community on this suit?

When I was a student, I loved working in the clinic. And now I get to do it again—I’ve really found a cheat code! I’m getting to work with, learn from, and—in a small way—be a part of the clinic again. The students inject such energy, creativity, and a desire to pursue justice and help struggling families in our community. The collaboration invigorates me and more importantly, bolsters the work. In addition, it helps to build a cadre of knowledgeable and dedicated lawyers who can enrich this emerging area of practice. This experience is particularly special because the clinic has been such an integral part of both my legal education and legal practice.

Additionally, the number and commitment of NYU Law lawyers involved in the lawsuit outside of the clinic shows the values that are instilled here in terms of coupling individual advocacy with systemic reform. These values, when brought together, are crucial for securing meaningful and lasting change.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Posted April 15, 2024.