Who We Are:
In 2007, Brooklyn Defender Services, Family Defense Practice (BFDP) was selected by the City of New York to represent parents in child welfare cases in Brooklyn Family Court. BFDP is assigned by the court to represent 1,150 new clients each year and has an active case load of over 2,000 clients. BFDP’s attorneys, social workers and parent advocates provide interdisciplinary legal representation to low-income parents facing significant legal and economic challenges to keeping their families together. In January 2013, BFDP joined Brooklyn Defender Services, which represents 38,000 Brooklyn residents arrested each year. BFDP’s interdisciplinary legal representation has dramatically changed the landscape of Brooklyn Family Court by advancing our clients’ constitutional rights to family integrity through aggressive motion practice and appeals and by raising the impact of poverty and race on our clients’ lives.
What We Do:
Since its founding, BFDP has provided interdisciplinary representation to nearly 5,500 low-income parents and touched the lives of over 11,000 children. Of these, 6,000 children were in foster care at some point, and BFDP helped obtain the safe return of almost 4,000 children through advocacy at case conferences and court hearings. Our advocacy at emergency hearings alone resulted in 589 children never entering foster care and 703 children being returned home quickly. 60% of our clients’ cases result in dismissals after settlements through Adjournments in Contemplation of Dismissals or after trial or motion. BFDP’s out-of-court advocate team attends over 500 case conferences each year.
Improving the Child Welfare System and Family Court for All Families
Through systemic advocacy, BFDP has helped reduce the unnecessary removal of hundreds of children from their homes. In 2010, BFDP threatened to sue the City for illegal removal practices resulting in children being taken away from their families when there was not a true emergency, only to be returned after a court hearing. As a result, the City developed a vastly improved emergency removal policy that has reduced by 40% the number of removals the City conducts without seeking court intervention.
BFDP’s Mental Health Advocacy Project, created in 2010, is radically transforming how mental illness is addressed by the child welfare system and family court. BFDP leads a coalition of parent, disability, and child advocacy groups, mental health experts and NYC Children’s Services to improve case work practice for families struggling with mental illness. The committee developed guidelines to improve decision-making by all parties in cases involving mental health issues. BFDP is also spearheading a Mental Health Services working group which is improving the quality of mental health evaluations used to make decisions about whether children should be returned home and whether parents’ rights should be terminated.
BFDP has been a strong voice challenging the assumption that marijuana use alone is a basis of child neglect. We have sought to change the City’s policy of filing child neglect cases against parents based on marijuana use alone. BFDP’s litigation advocacy with expert testimony from Dr. Carl Hart, featured in a WNYC story, resulted in a Family Court decision finding that marijuana use alone is not a sufficient basis for a finding of neglect.
BFDP regular testifies at hearings and advocates with City and State officials regarding the harmful impact of family court delays on our clients’ families.
BFDP is advocating with NYCCS to improve the delivery of foster care services to families and to improve parent’s meaningful participation in case conferences.
Providing Specialized Outreach and Advocacy to Vulnerable Families
BFDP’s Keeping Families Together Project hosts Know Your Rights trainings and community forums and provides services for parents at risk of involvement with the child welfare system before they have cases filed against them in court. The Project attempts to bring the voices of those most impacted by the child welfare system into policy debates. In the coming months, BFDP will launch a Parent Leadership Institute to train parents with prior child welfare involvement to advocate for other parents and create systemic change.
Our Young Parents’ Empowerment Project recognizes the special needs of parenting youth, supporting young parents as they navigate the child welfare system with personalized support and monthly workshops that empower them to develop the tools and skills they need to parent their children, while getting an education and obtaining employment.
BFDP has a successful Therapeutic Visiting Program in collaboration with the Children’s Museum of the Arts, which offers children in foster care and their parents an opportunity to work closely with an art therapist in a positive and nurturing environment while creating art together.
BFDP has built a thriving pro bono program in partnership with ten major New York City law firms resulting in hundreds of hours of pro bono work for clients and excellent litigation experience for associates, including drafting motions, arguing appeals, working with experts and conducting depositions.
BFDP’s Associates' Advisory Board provides advice and guidance to BFDP’s leadership on issues concerning communication, policy, and fundraising. With 26 members from 11 law firms, the board is crucial in expanding BFDP’s capacity, leveraging pro bono resources, and increasing BFDP’s community profile. Board members are given ongoing education and insight into child welfare issues, BFDP’s practice and the management of the organization. The Advisory Board enables associates to gain leadership experience in a non-profit setting.
New York University School of Law’s Family Defense Clinic assigns its students to work on BFDP’s most complex and resource-intensive cases.
Brooklyn Law School’s Second Chance program helps BFDP clients have their names cleared with the State Central Registry after their case is dismissed. BFDP partners with social work graduate schools and has one of the largest social work intern programs in the City.
BFDP relies on the generous backing of our supporters, law students, pro bono attorneys and donors. Please consider joining our mailing list and following our work in the coming year.